Category Archives: enlightenment

Philosophy and the Common Person

In a recent sermon at Church, the priest was discussing the concept of resurrection, which is supposed to be one of the central bases of Christian faith. There was apparently a debate between our own church-goers as to the validity of resurrection and therefore he called up a set of people, divided into two groups, each trying to argue why resurrection is valid or not. Thankfully, it was a short debate, since neither group had the philosophical skills nor the oratorial skills to interest me. Obviously, nothing came out of this debate other than a huge waste of time – Something debated for two thousand years is unlikely to settled by six minutes of incoherent arguments.

One wonders why this particular issue is controversial, and not the issue of whether beer or whisky is served in heaven. Each one of us has the same insight into either problem, and atleast the latter is more relatable and one can argue from experience why beer or whisky is more divine. While debating such trivialities is definitely good intellectual exercise to keep the gray matter in shape, but can hardly be the carrier of any message of use to the people attending Church.

Each of us lives in two worlds, the imagined world of possibilities and potentialities and the lived world. Depending on one’s inclinations and imagination, one is as real as the other. Heaven, Rebirth, Resurrection, all these belong to the former, and beer and whisky to the latter. Priests, Philosophers and miscellaneous IISc junta normally spend most of their time in the former, whereas those engaged in productive work predominantly reside in the lived world of rude shopkeepers, interminable queues and overcrowded buses. One set tries to find dynamical patterns in the Monsoon, whereas the other gets drenched and muddy due to it.

This being the case, it is hardly surprising that people tend to nod off when the priest talks about the Nicean council and eschatology, and observation of ritual is an excuse to socialise than to learn something useful. Philosophy is useful, in that it gives us a broad understanding of and the limits of the way of life that we pursue. However, its methods to try and reach useful conclusions are normally not interesting to anyone. It may make for dazzling sermons, but poor party gossip. What really matters is what understanding one gains from it, and its applicability in everyday life.

The issue is that Philosophy tries to reach at general, immutable principles guiding the universe and human nature. However, everyday life is exactly the opposite — particular (to an individual, community,…) and contingent. Therefore, while the question of resurrection and the implied final judgement may dissuade most believers from performing blatantly ‘sinful’ acts, it cannot tell them whether it is ethical to bargain with a street vendor or travel ticketless in a bus. One just cannot be debating the ethical merit of one’s position when  action is required right now, right here.

It is therefore not surprising when we see the popularity of new age gurus rising. These people are giving their followers exactly what they are looking for — guidance about their teenage child, workplace feud or love interest. The traditional stress on ritual and metaphysics almost pushes people toward Sri Sri and their ilk. What we need is a philosophy for life in this world, not for after death in another world.

Review: Debates in Indian Philosophy

yes, yes, I had promised not to do much philosophy in these pages, but this book deserves an exception. With an agenda as good as the exposition itself, it is worth recollecting.

I will not try to explicate  the arguments (which require atleast a couple of readings to understand properly), instead will try and give an overview so that anyone interested can pick it up themselves. The book concerns itself with the question of the lack of debates in contemporary Indian philosophy, which were a regular feature in classical times (Upanishads are a good exmaple), and also of Western philosophy at all times.

The author tries to understand the conflation of philosophers who differed in important aspects like Vivekananda and Gandhi as something that was required in the colonial scenario, since a show of unity was important to the nationalist agenda. He tries to set the record straight by bringing out the differences in their thought which he hopes will provide fresh material for debates to continue.

He also tries to understand the socio-cultural milieu in which they existed, wherein classical Indian philosophy was not the only factor to consider, but Western ideas needed to be imbibed and used to make their voices heard and understood by their colonial masters. He argues that contemporary Indian philosophy does not have a direct continuity with either classical Indian but has lost a major structural feature which is the dialogic tradition.

This being said, he embarks upon a journey to read from these philosophers and show differences which were never expressed directly even though they were from the same time. He chooses three hot spots : Vivekananda and Gandhi, Savarkar and Gandhi, and Sri Aurobindo and Krishnachandra Bhattacharya.

In the first, he shows how Vivekananda supported a ‘barter’ between the East and the West, gaining material progress from the West in exchange for our spiritual knowledge, and how Gandhi rejected Modernity and tried to define progress in a manner different from the Enlightenment’s notion of increasing rationality and material affluence. He argues that Modernity is a completed task in the West, whereas in India the modern and the pre-modern coexist, often on the same street. He argues that Modernity is anthithetical to pluralism due to its focus solely on the individual and not on the community and rejection of differences between people of different communities (This is something I have personally noticed when in conversation with Indian friends in the US). Something like a Brave New World scenario. You can call it the Melting pot scenario as well. The difference in the cosmopolitanism of a New York and a Mumbai or Bangalore make this distinction all the more stark. Communal identities are still strong in Indian megacities unlike in the Western European or US ones. The author tells us that Gandhi’s was a more realistic ideology since it was based in the realities of the Indian social structure.

Addendum: some parts of the argument above was taken from the Savarkar-Gandhi chapter, but can be justified since both deal with the same issue: nation/state building vis-a-vis society building.

I will not go into the other two debates, between Savarkar and Gandhi (one politicizes religion, the other spiritualizes politics) and Aurobindo and KCB (one says science and metaphysics complement each other, the other that science denies metaphysics), but if the one above sounds interesting, then this book is for you.

Melkote: again!

We had been to Melkote again, but on a different mission, to discuss ways and means to rejuvenate Hosa Jeevana Dhari. For a brief introduction of the place and its people, see here. HJD had been embroiled in some internal issues and had reduced its activities to a minimal level. Now, the Koulagi family is back at the helm, and hope to do interesting things here again.

The meet was attended by around 10 people, all very experienced and focused to make life more tolerable for those that society ignores or worse, no longer tolerates. The agenda was this: HJD, started in the ’70s with a firm commitment to Sarvodaya, is now facing far stronger historical and social forces that define development and progress today. What can be its role in such a situation ?

The opening statements by everyone were concerned with issues of quantitative vs. qualitative work. Should the scale of the solution be large, or is it important to do something small, but in a more focused way was an issue which was grappled with, and a consensus was reached on the latter, given both the dominance of the present mainstream thinking as well as logistical difficulties. Considering that there are crises in all aspects of society – education, healthcare, agriculture, governance, equity, so on – Hosa Jeevana Dhari should literally try and show a hosa jeevana dhari (new way of life).

Another issue that concerned most present was the lack of examples for the younger generation to follow. If anyone reading this points toward Mukesh Ambani or Ratan Tata, please kill him (on rare occasions, her) on my behalf. Lack of role models both at home and outside at school/anywhere is making the idiot box more influential than it should be. A lack of a world view in children seems to be resulting in adults who are taught to pander their own whims without viewing their behavior from a broader perspective. For example, a liberal society today essentially means one with an unfettered market, without any qualifications or justifications. It is, therefore it is good. The moral implications are largely ignored. This is usually the case with philosophies which are administered by a clique of ‘high priests’, with a great incentive to keep people uncritical and ignorant.

HJD has had a long association with (organic) farming, and the agrarian crisis, reasons and experiences on the ground were discussed. Since it is well known that ideas have a greater chance of percolating when there is great change in society,  the participants saw the present situation as a premonition to times where alternatives will be actively sought for. Therefore, exemplars in HJD for a way of life that rests on principles radically different from the present modernity will serve the society well. All agreed that at present, intervention at a large scale is not possible, but ‘keeping the flame alive’ is what is essential. If someone comes looking for solutions, how confidently can HJD propose alternatives ? The answer lies in conviction and commitment to do the necessary groundwork to be able to propose realisitic, replicable and extant solutions, rather than just normative proposals with no material existence. The Gandhian allusion to ‘oceanic circles’ was used here (who used it in a different way), to visualise an exemplary HJD influencing melkote, and so on like ripples in the water.

Active propagation of the message of a sustainable life – one that is equitable, gender sensitive, harmonious with nature – was another aspect of the discussion. Many suggestions, including weekend workshops for urbanites, especially children and youth, Audio/Video material, books were put forward. Ideas about awareness campaigns among farmers were also thrown about. Many related their own experiences in the field, relating the difficulties they faced, and the opinion of the farmer or the urbanite which makes the present situation both difficult to change and difficult to sustain. People change their ways if they see a need for it and it helps them better their life.

Summarizing, one cannot but admit there is a crisis: people have been reduced to ‘essentially greedy’ individuals by our present system of economic organization, nature has become ‘capital’, life has boiled down to a chase for satisfying wants without any other purpose. Like one of the participants mentioned, until the European enlightenment, all civilizations had some purpose to life. Afterward, Evolution tells us that we are the product of years of random mutations of genes with no actual purpose, Bertrand Russell calls us bunch of atoms. Neither has ever been able to explain humans in their entirety, and the ‘high priest’ syndrome makes the people accept doctrines such as these uncritically.

Undoubtedly, there is a better way of looking at life. To know who we are and where we should go, we should always know where we came from. One can do worse than look at the thoughts of Gandhi and Kumarappa towards this end. Western notions of progress has lead to the highest rates of divorce and suicide in the so-called developed nations, and probably the highest density of god(con?)-men. Somehow, satisfying material wants ad infinitum does not seem to work. People somehow seem to want meaning/purpose, which modernity is not gracious with. To understand and translate and preserve for posterity alternative visions of what a civilization should be like is what HJD aims to do. To essentially create mentors and be one to society in a time when it is needed most. One wishes good luck and godspeed.

Normative foundations of human endeavor

Apologies for the bad sounding title, just came out that way. I had a few queries in the comments section about two things, one was about efficiency and the other about my ‘appraisal’ of the Honey Bee Network. Well, I can hardly consider myself competent to do anything like the latter, but the Honey Bee Network is an excellent example of what I want to put forward here. Thanks to the person who reminded me of it!

Some of you may have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a diagrammatic representation of the way our needs progress, from the crassly utilitarian to ‘higher’ spiritual and moral needs. It is assumed that every person goes through this hierarchy, and most stop at some level where they are satisfied. Correspondingly, your value system gets shaped by the needs that you think are most pressing, or where in the pyramid you lie. Almost all human endeavor has had some normative scaffolding supporting it, and I think it is necessary that we examine these value systems for a clearer understanding of conflict and cooperation: how a Prakash can rationalize the present state of development looking at the Dalits at home, and how a Deepak can speak out against the present development paradigm, which to him is disenfranchising the same Dalits. One has a narrow view, the other a much broader one. One concentrated on the materialist values, another acknowledged the importance of material well-being and went beyond it. Thus, two people who essentially wanted to achieve the same thing go about in different way depending on what values they hold dear. Co-operation, even with similar goals can occur only when we agree on a similar path. Else, an uneasy truce which will eventually break down into conflict will result.

This contradistinction is nowhere as stark as in the role of science and rational thinking which were purported to represent ‘progress’ (by the children of the Enlightenment, like ourselves) vis-a-vis traditional knowledge systems. We have to understand the historical background that the Enlightenment was set in: the Dark Ages preceded it, with a repressive Church which could only maintain its own dominance by curtailing free speech and the right to question authority. In an almost reactionary stance, the great thinkers of the period put forth the ideas of liberalism, scientific method and rejection of all metaphysical and theological stances, and everything else that the Church stood for. (This was followed by a reactionary Romantic movement, followed by an era of logical positivism, followed by postmodernism, i.e, oscillation after oscillation which always resulted from a re-evaluation of value-systems the then dominant paradigm held dear. After the Sokal hoax, postmodernism is quite a bit under attack. Westeners are crazy.) Other highly developed systems of thought, especially in Asian societies have hardly seen the kind of paradigm shift that the Enlightenment (in the form of its torch-bearer, science) has brought forth.

The value systems of science are clear: a mechanistic interpretation of nature, rejection of things that cannot be perceived, dichotomy of natural and normative principles, universal applicability, and a cumulative body of work which progressively controls nature to serve man’s interests. Principles of liberalism take man to be the fundamental unit of analysis, and deal with his freedom and rights.(Women did not figure too much in discussions then). Take the example of certain set of people in India who break stones for a living: They beg the stone’s forgiveness before they break it, since it is the way for them to earn their daily bread. For them, nature is not a set of atoms, but has values that cannot be measured empirically. Logically speaking, there is no reason to accept either conception of nature as correct or incorrect. These are values which cannot be talked of in terms of logic.

At another point in the spectrum lie systems of thought like Ayurveda and Yogasana. From a ‘scientific’ point of view, it is hardly clear how standing on one’s head can lead to good health, but seems like it does. Homoeopathy is another example. Modern medicine ridicules it, but it does work! Now, these systems of knowledge have utmost respect for nature and her ‘healing powers’ , do not differentiate empirical and metaphysical levels of thinking, and tries to harmonise man’s relationship with nature, rather than controlling it. Indian metaphysics hardly gives any importance to an individual as a unit of analysis, and rather opposes all phenomena to the unchanging Brahman. Importance is put on the realisation of the unchangeable than to indulge in the transient material existence. (Ecologically speaking, an individual is part of a huge web of life, and you will never find individuals being taken as a unit of analysis, but populations and their relations with other populations. Thus, one sees more correlation between actuality and philosophy when we take Indian philosophy and Western ecology together.)

We have now reached a point in time where the Western systems of thought, with all their baggage are being accepted uncritically by cultures worldwide. Since it is essentially the doctrines of liberalism and rationalism which have brought such material wealth to Western Europe and the USA, it seems logical that we follow it without questioning. Not that the Enlightenment’s contribution is immoral or invalid (modern science and medicine deserve more respect than being called nonsense), but that it creates a conflict of values, values which are deeply embedded in us. Thus, one cannot be opposed to Brahmin students conducting dissections, but Brahmin students taking up non-vegetarianism because of peer pressure when the West is turning vegetarian is a pathetic sight. Gandhi was deeply troubled by his experiments with meat eating and regretted it thoroughly. Our traditional knowledge systems are losing their value simply because they cannot be quantified and are not ‘valuable’ in the economic sense.

This is where organisations like the Honey Bee Network play such a vital role. HBN is trying to bridge the gap between disparate systems of thinking and trying to find common ground for dialogue. Keeping the western values of systematic enquiry and while not belittling the cultural wisdom of the native is what HBN has been doing successfully for some time now. The results of their untiring work is there for all to see on their website, with traditional wisdom being documented for posterity and rural inventors and entrepreneurs being encouraged. I have run out of my quota to speak about efficiency, will keep that for later. Too much indulgement in philosophy is dangerous, will stop here ;)

Whence the Social Sciences ?

During and after the final days of 4 years of decadence that has come to be known as Engineering, I developed a certain taste for things non-technical (which is obviously apparent), and decided to try and think of options other than IT as a career. The first attractive option was Economics, after all, these dudes seem(claim) to know why and how we tick, monetarily atleast. Asked around for advice, and Deepak Malghan, (almost sole) author of this blog, gave me very negative opinions about it. Considering that the advice came from a person who studied Economics from Princeton and Maryland, was taken aback and decided to find out for myself the reasons for such an opinion.

The idea was not to study Economic theories, but to study Economics (or Sociology, since I wanted to see what these guys were upto as well) in itself. The fundamental assumptions, the philosophy behind these subjects, which would help me form my own opinion about them. This is still an ongoing process, and thought a mid-term check of what has been gleaned will be in order. This post will be the first in a series of posts which will describe, as the header says, the origin of the social sciences, and I will concentrate on sociology and economics, since they are what I have studied so far, rather than psychology, Anthropology or any others. I will draw my main streams of thought from Isaiah Berlin (the book has been previously mentioned), Reassembling the Social by Bruno LaTour and some other sources like The Worldly Philosophers by Heilbroner, Limitations of Marginal Utility by Veblen, The Affluent Society by John K. Galbraith (who was Ambassador to India, btw), maybe a little from Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher as well, if I can get it back from a friend who is currently (not!!) reading it. If time permits, I will add some notes from The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (which i intend to finish sometime before I die).

Though it may be noticed that most of the books are Economic literature, and Sociology has been underrepresented (only LaTour), LaTour’s book is more philosophical in nature, as compared to the others, and since that is the focus of this series of posts, and due to lack of literature, will have to content myself with it. This will not be a comprehensive, nor well rounded survey, and all mistakes are acts of omission rather than commission.

As Isaiah Berlin rightly points out, the ideas and theories that one studies is incomplete if not viewed along with the historical conditions that surrounded its birth. Thus, it makes sense to
learn about the birth of the social sciences, and the reasons for their coming into existence. The scene is the 17th century, and Isaac Newton is on his way to superstardom after the publication of the Prinicipia Mathematica, Galileo and Copernicus are much admired for their brave stand against the oppressive intellectual climate created by the Church for whatever reasons, and the numerous breakthroughs in physics and mathematics (by above mentioned people and others like Leibniz) have captured the imagination of the intellectuals of the era. Newton actually was able to predict orbits of planets which were empirically given until then by Kepler’s laws, and heliocentrism made possible a very accurate picture of the solar system. The triumph of reason over blind belief, of science over theology, of logic over metaphysics was seen as an imminent, inevitable happening. The oppressive feudal system which gave prominence for place of birth over any intrinsic ability was much decried against, and the ‘enlightened’ people of this era set about building systematic arguments about the idea of divine rights of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and all such nonsense. This was about the same time when the Holy Roman Empire was in its death throes and people were beginning to speak boldly, questioning the basis of despotism, feudalism, nobility and primacy of the Church as a source of both divine and material power.

It was an era of tremendous change, and brought to the fore men of great intellectual ability like Voltaire, Hobbes, Rousseau, Descartes, the list will simply go on and on. They were the pioneers, so to speak, in the wilderness of unreason, irrationality, despotism, trying to find paths which lead to liberty, equality, fraternity (the main themes under which the French Revolution of 1789 was fought) using the guiding torch of reason. Every set about writing their own views about the world, and how it should be, and the printers probably laughed all the way to the bank. These were men with the noble task of ushering in the “Age of Reason”, as the Enlightenment is also called. Everything had to be argued on the basis or reason, had to be rational, or else you probably were reactionary (i.e, siding with the Church or the kings, which was very bad). The Medieval Ages were ruled by all kinds of fairy tales, cults of irrationality called religions, and now was the time to break from all that and start another cult : the cult of Reason or Rationality.

Now, all the old institutions were to be disposed of with. The State, as previously identified with a majestic king who was given the right to rule over his subject by someone no less the God himself could no longer be accepted. God is an irrational creation of man, not verifiable in any sense, and therefore could not be a source of authority. Man was not created by the breath of God, and therefore there must be other ways in which to understand him ( Gender sensitivity was not necessary for political correctness then, from what i gather). What better way to start analysing such things if not by the methods adopted by the spectacularly successful natural sciences ? Newton, the blue eyed icon, who stood for all that is Rational, was to be emulated in studying all aspects of the world. Studies had been made and successfully explained why a stone moves if we kick it, and why the moon does not spin away from the earth, and obviously these things were explained using rational arguments, therefore it must be possible to explain man, agglomerations of men in the same manner. After all, everything in the universe followed a rational pattern, and one just required the insight to find it. Man was a bunch of atoms, and we knew how atoms work, so by induction we must be able to postulate general laws as to the behaviour of man. But since not everything is known to us as of now, we must atleast postulate laws which in some sense must be empirically verifiable.

Every genuine question must have a genuine answer : if not, the question is false, irrational. Since questions like “what is the nature of man?”, “what is the nature of the State?” “How can economic relations between men explained ?” are genuine questions, they must have genuine, unique answers. And these can be answered, atleast to the extent of the present knowledge, by employing methodologies which have had such success in the natural sciences, i.e, they must be verifiable or be supported by sound reasoning.

This seems to be the bouyant mood in which Western Europe was in the Age of the Enlightenment. This was the time when the systematic study of man and his relations with others started, which was later termed as the Social Sciences. The consequences of this outlook at the birth of the Social Sciences has had many effects, swinging both in the positive and the negative direction. What they were, next time.