JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Nilanjan Das

January 10, 2024 by Sonja Johnston

Nilanjan Das (Ph.D. Philosophy, MIT, 2016) is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto Mississauga. He works on epistemology and the history of South Asian philosophy. In epistemology, he explores connections between self-knowledge and the requirements of epistemic rationality. In the history of South Asian philosophy, he focuses on debates between Buddhists and Brahmanical philosophers about the nature of the self, knowledge, and self-knowledge. His fellowship research project is titled The Absence of Evidence Principle in South Asian Philosophy. Nilanjan is one of our 2023-24 JHI Faculty Research Fellows.

What are your main research interests?

My research interests are in epistemology and the history of Sanskrit philosophy. In my work on epistemology, I have explored the connection about self-knowledge and rationality in a series of papers: to what extent our knowledge of our own mental states affects what we can rationally think or do. In my work on the history of Sanskrit philosophy, I have examined on a variety of debates that took place in South Asia in the first and early second millennia CE: on whether there is a substantial self, on what it is to acquire knowledge, and on when we can take ourselves to know something.

What project are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it?

At JHI, I have begun work on a book on the problem of induction in the history of Sanskrit philosophy. The problem of induction, roughly, is the problem of how we can justifiably draw conclusions about what we haven’t observed on the basis of what we have observed. I may have encountered many emeralds, and found them all to be green. Doesn’t that justify me in drawing the conclusion that all emeralds are green? In the 18th century, David Hume famously argued for the answer “No.” Since then, epistemologists and philosophers of science have tried to diagnose where Hume’s argument goes wrong. In my project, I wish to show that scepticism about induction has a longer—and arguably richer—history. Already in the first millennium CE, there were Sanskrit philosophers who argued against the thesis that we can gain any knowledge by induction, and there were others who resisted such scepticism. What fascinates me about this earlier debate is this. Unlike Hume’s argument, the argument that induction-sceptics in Sanskrit philosophy offer depends crucially on a principle about the absence of evidence: roughly, the principle that the absence of observational evidence for an unobservable entity cannot constitute evidence for its absence. So, if emeralds that are spatiotemporally distant from me are unobservable for me, the fact that I haven’t observe such emeralds to be green cannot constitute evidence for the hypothesis that they aren’t green. Then, how can I rule out the possibility that there may be some unobserved emeralds that aren’t green? That is the problem.

What are you hoping to experience as a JHI Fellow?

Academic philosophy, especially in the Anglophone world, is discontinuous with the other humanities: not just in subject matter and interests, but also in methodology. Yet, at the same time, philosophical questions about evidence, absence and the relationship between the two abound in other humanities, e.g., in areas like history and literature. I am hoping that, through my interactions with the other fellows, I will be exposed to new ways of thinking about the philosophical questions I’m interested in, and unfamiliar questions that can be explored philosophically through my own work.

Can you share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by?

In connection with the theme of absence that this year’s JHI fellowship is organized around, I have been reading a few books on the representation of absence in art. The two best books I’ve read in this area are E. H. Gombrich’s Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art and Michael Baxandall’s Shadows and Enlightenment. Gombrich’s book is a masterful study of how artists from the Renaissance to the 20th century represented shadows and used such representation to heighten the drama or the illusion of realism in works of visual art. By contrast, Baxandall’s book is more wide-ranging: it shows how debates about vision science and the philosophy of perception in the18th century—as well as Leonardo da Vinci’s earlier theory of shadows in his Treatise of Painting—shaped the way in which artists thought about and represented shadows in that period.

What is a fun fact about you?

I really like food! Ever since I came to Toronto last January, I have been exploring its many restaurants: both downtown and in the suburbs (where I’ve eaten some of the best Asian food). So far, Karahi Boys in Mississauga is my favourite venue for South Asian cuisine.