Social history in the study of Indian intellectual cultures?by Christopher Minkowski, Rosalind O’Hanlon, Anand Venkatkrishnan

South Asian History and Culture


Arts and Humanities (all) / Sociology and Political Science / Cultural Studies


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South Asian History and Culture

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Social history in the study of Indian intellectual cultures?

Christopher Minkowskia, Rosalind O’Hanlona & Anand

Venkatkrishnanb a Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK b Department of Religion, Columbia University, New York, USA

Published online: 07 Nov 2014.

To cite this article: Christopher Minkowski, Rosalind O’Hanlon & Anand Venkatkrishnan (2015)

Social history in the study of Indian intellectual cultures?, South Asian History and Culture, 6:1, 1-9,

DOI: 10.1080/19472498.2014.969006

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Social history in the study of Indian intellectual cultures?

Christopher Minkowskia*, Rosalind O’Hanlona and Anand Venkatkrishnanb aFaculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK; bDepartment of Religion, Columbia

University, New York, USA

The essays in this volume were presented in earlier versions at a workshop in Oxford in 2013, ‘Discipline, Sect, Lineage, and Community: Scholar Intellectuals in India c.1500–1800.’

They seek to bring social, intellectual, and religious history together, through studies of individual scholars and their writings. The purpose of the workshop was to explore varieties of contextualism.We hoped to explore models that would illuminate our understanding of the scholarly production of intellectuals and social observers during India’s early modern period.

We designed the workshop in response to recent developments in intellectual history and in the study of the intellectual history of early modern India in particular.1

We began by assuming that placing an author ‘in context’ at least meant taking in the wider literary setting in which he hoped to make an intervention and the intellectual and linguistic tools with which he did so. But for premodern Indian scholars, we came to believe, it also requires consideration of extra-intellectual contexts. Such contexts include their disciplinary and sectarian affiliations and the interactions between them, their caste, family and household circumstances, and the kinds of livelihood through which they were able to support their scholarly activities.

What might it mean to bring social and intellectual history together to study Indian intellectuals ‘in context’? One approach is that proposed by Quentin Skinner and the ‘Cambridge school’ of European intellectual history. This approach appears to be one that weathered the stormy era a few decades ago when contextualism underwent withering deconstructions. The most thoughtful consideration of Skinner’s approach for the study of early modern Indian intellectuals has come from Jonardon Ganeri. He suggests that

Skinner’s model is both too rich and too poor for India. It is too rich, because in India we do not have the depth of information about individual intellectuals available in Europe,

Skinner’s field of operations.2 It is too poor, because in India scholars worked in an unusually text-rich environment, where writers sought to make their literary/intellectual interventions in a setting where the objects of study were very often entire disciplines – the śāstras or ‘sciences’ and the tantras, textualized traditions of intense ritual practice.

Disciplines of this kind were broader contexts of intellectual intervention than Skinner considered.

Skinner’s model can nevertheless yield results in India, Ganeri argues, if we study the interventions of individual authors in these structured ‘inter-textual’ settings. Ganeri applies this method in his study of the navya nyāya or ‘new reason’ school of philosophy in Bengal. He examines its interactions with the wider world of Mughal intellectual culture and the European currents of thought which reached India through it. He suggests that those interactions formed the context in which ‘early modernity’ came to Sanskrit *Corresponding author. Email:

South Asian History and Culture, 2015

Vol. 6, No. 1, 1–9, © 2014 Taylor & Francis

D ow nl oa de d by [1 34 .11 7.1 0.2 00 ] a t 1 2:0 0 3 0 N ov em be r 2 01 4 intellectual culture. This culture saw ‘the formation of a new philosophical self’ amongst scholars of the period. Like their European contemporaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they searched, in dialogue with past authorities, for truths based on reasoned decision-making and more transparent forms of language.3