Category Archives: pragmatism

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.

On ends and means, rights and duties

A quite generic model of a human is one who has certain ends that he wants to pursue (gaadi-bungalow, moksha, etc.,), and is looking for means to achieve these ends. Given this, your preferred ends are finally governed by your ethical, moral and metaphysical outlook, and the normal means are politics, economics and religion. For example, if national service is what interests you, you might want to look at politics (replace national with self, and still the same means holds. Politics is such an adaptive thing!). If you wish a comfortable life, you look to the market to sell your goods/services/labor to make money. A normal person will have many such ends, and we end up doing politics, economics and religion. Now, if we are to accept the axiom that each person must be free to pursue any end that she so wishes, the as societal beings, we must come up with a way to ensure that this axiom holds, atleast theoretically.

And thus we come to the concept of a State. Whether it materialized due a ‘social contract’ or as a necessity in a Hobbsean society, the main function of a State is to ensure the above axiom holds. Thus, the State has powers of coercion over its citizens, which is willingly given to it by the citizens themselves (who are given a fancy name: ‘polity’) to ensure that each can lead a fulfilling life. Why this is necessary has been written about before.

There cannot be a common set of ends for all, since each person is unique (not everyone wants the same brand/color of motor vehicles!). There are, in any sufficiently organized society, limited number of means, and they are normally classified as those that do not harm others, and those that do. Since we want each person to acheive whatever he wants to, provided he does not hurt anyone, each person is assumed to have a set of ‘rights’. There are some negative rights (‘right against something’, ‘something’ can be being cheated, murdered, discriminated, etc.,) and positive rights (‘right to something’, ‘something’ can be a good education, employment, etc.,). There have been arguments as to whether the State much only ensure negative or positive or both kind of rights, but that is a different story altogether. Get this if you want to dive into this stuff.

The Indian State is no different, and certain rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. Violation of these can be referred directly to the Supreme Court, without going through any lower courts. We also have certain duties, but these are not enforcable and citizens are ‘morally obligated’ to perform them. This is not the case with other countries, with Switzerland having compulsory military service for all male citizens.

In all political activity seen nowadays, the main cry is to demand for certain rights, whereas duties are never mentioned. Bangalore demands a positive right to water, but Bangaloreans have absolutely no interest even in a basic duty such as voting. The reason for this is a conception of humans as ‘possessive individualists‘, which simply says that people have to make money from their (god-given, or acquired?) skills, and owe nothing to society. Whether it be Dalit, Brahmin, tribal or industrialist, the political scene is full with clamor for rights, new rights, and redressal for their violation. Everybody wants good food at the mess, but nobody (including myself!) wants anything to do with how it runs. It should simply run itself, somehow.

Another approach is to say our duty is to pay tax and obey laws, the rest is the duty of the State. This has worked well in the Scandinavian countries, but in a country as vast and heterogenous as India, this amounts almost to escapism – no State of reasonable size can ever perform the duties of a billion people. The gradual withdrawal from society to ‘attain realization’ amounts to saying moksha can be pursued without the fulfillment of dharma. It is in this sense that modern economics and liberalism have been a liberating force: they have given theoretical justification for people to be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of dharma. Religions were the traditional body of authority which dictated the duties of an individual, but no longer wield the same influence as before.

Asceticism or the theory of karma cannot justify the non-performance of dharma. Renunciation, as taught by Buddha, Mahavira or Sankara, which involves a complete removal of oneself from society to attain moksha has found rebuttals by the actions of reformers like Basavanna, Rammohun Roy, Gokhale, Vivekananda and Gandhi. Even Buddhism requires of enlightened individuals to alleviate suffering by removal of ignorance, which is what Buddhism considers the root of suffering. While this purely mental view of human suffering may not be correct, but it is aleast something. The new age philosophers/activists, especially Gandhi, believed that only through active participation in civic duty can one harmonise artha, kama, dharma and moksha. Gandhi himself, though a continuous seeker of moksha (which he called Truth as well), used the instrument of politics to achieve this end. Of course, his idea of politics which was to uplift the underprivileged, unlike present day netas.

And thus from Gandhi comes the most clarifying present day articulation of what one’s dharma should be in this day and age:

I will give you a talisman. ‘Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless person whom you have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him the control over his life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and starving millions?’ Then you will find your doubts and self melting away.

The difficulty of being an ‘Indian’ in India.

As a working definition of an ‘Indian’, “A person rooted in tradition, but eager to learn and absorb from other cultures” will do as well as any other. The number of people in this category is quite small, but surveying the present political and economic landscape one can see that this species is being driven toward extinction like many other non-human ones in India.

To begin, one must differentiate this definition from the more schizophrenic prescription that Vivekananda had for Indians to develop, that Indians learn from the West about the material world and they learn from India about the spiritual world. Considering the recurrent crises in economies modelled after the Western ones and the Climate issue that is a direct consequence of such an arrangement, to claim that economics is something that we should learn from the West can defnitely be challenged. Anyone travelling across India will tell you that most Indians are as spiritual as the investment banker on Wall Street. Therefore, whatever else one accepts from Vivekananda, this particular prescription must not be accepted. Rather, a more subtle approach which also recognizes and appreciates local economic arrangements and great thinkers from the West is in order.

The reason I call Vivekananda’s prescription schizophrenic follows from my previous post – material arrangements cannot be divorced from non-material ones. For example, a culture that does not allow cruelty to animals cannot advance anatomical knowledge through dissection of live animals – some other means will have to be found. A culture that treats some people as untouchable cannot provide equal opportunity to all. Thus, whole hearted appreciation of western material arrangements can lead one quite far away from one’s cultural roots, leading to what has been called as ‘anxiety nationalism‘, made famous by bands of thugs known as Shiv Sena or Rama Sene. It can also lead to complete westernization, but these are too busy shopping in malls to be politically active, so they are not very relevant to this discussion.

The intellectual scene here seems to be dominated by what one can call ‘Instant Nirvana’ intellectuals – those that read a couple of (propagandist?) books or blogs and claim to have understood the realities of India today, forming what is known as an epistemic community – their world view, shaped by few leaders of the community, is infallible and any opposition to it can only be due to delusion of the opponent. A good example is of people who seem to suffer from the ‘persecution complex’ – Babur tried to destroy Indian culture, therefore all Muslims are bad, and therefore we need to acquire nuclear weapons. One cannot really follow the logic, but similar arguments will be used against Chinese, Christians, anyone who does not worship at a temple anywhere in the world. Another example is of those who see Indian history as a systematic oppression of everyone by the Brahmins – We know from Marx and other great people that all history is about someone oppressing someone else, bourgeois culture is symbolic of this oppression, India is ‘of the Brahmins, for the Brahmins’.

Like most ideology, both these examples are both true and false – unless one understands that, there is no dialogue, only rhetoric and finger pointing. Here lies the problem for someone who wants to see the whole elephant rather than only some of its parts – say one is true, you are branded a Communalist. Say the same for the other, you are branded a Marxist. There are a couple of reasons that I feel have led to such a sad state of affairs.

The first is the domination of Indian political language by non-Indian terms – Anyone or thing is either Left or Right, Communalist or Marxist, Middle, upper or lower class, neoliberal or Maoist, Libertarian or Statist. One can always appeal to Samuel Huntington, Koenraad Elst, David Frawley or if one has different tastes, Marx, Foucault or Bakunin are always present. All one needs to do is look at the newspapers – the immense epistemic void in our political vocabulary will be immediately evident. There is even a Dalit group called the ‘Dalit Panthers of India’, reminiscent of the Black Panthers of the USA. This, of course, is not to deride people who have made contributions to the understanding of India from their own perspective, but just that understanding India from an Indian’s perspective seem to be contributing very little to the public sphere (another western term, sigh!!).

Not that we have not done anything in understanding ourselves – M. N. Srinivas, Muhammad Yunus, Ela Bhatt, Krishna Kumar are names that immediately come to mind. The problem may just be that of language – almost all of the Indian intellectual sphere is dominated by English speakers who cannot (will not?) read intellectuals who write in the vernacular. As Ramachandra Guha laments in a recent article, the multilingual intellectual is a rare species in India. Unless the language and epistemic barriers are broken, one sees little hope for furthering mutual understanding and respect. Are there political and economic frameworks that have been generated within India, which can by used to analyse a country that always frustrates external analysis ? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else I guess.

The second is the pseudo war-like situation that we find ourselves in nowadays – Opposing intellectual groups are fighting to imprint upon the populace their imagination of India. Thus, if you are not for us, you are against us. There are giants like M. K. Gandhi who are claimed by most groups for their own due to the fact that none really understand him well, but lesser mortals are forced to take sides, else a side will be chosen for them. War always has a homogenizing influence on society – unity, after all, is strength. Thus the preponderance of rhetoric from all groups, rather than meaningful dialogue. We cannot even have sane dialogues within the country, and we want to further dialogue with Pakistan!! Hypocrisy is nowhere are colorful as in India. Easiest way to see this is to see programmes like the ‘Big Fight’, which is the standard intellectual fodder (gulp!) for most Indians. The point of people to get onto such programmes is to abuse and condescend rather than understand.

These are some issues that one can immediately see, without too much analysis or reflection. Maybe there are more. But the fundamental constraint stays – unless you understand yourself from within, and understand yourself from another’s perspective, without getting carried away by either in any field – economics, politics, science etc. etc., there is really no hope for a truly ‘Indian’ identity.

Institutions: reflections

The bad thing about constructive work is that it makes it more difficult to do non-constructive things like reading and writing blogs. After a crazy schedule for almost a month and half (including 3 hindi movies):, finally managed to sit down and finish some documentation and other sundry work.

The world has decidedly gone to hell in the past few weeks. Pakistan is going crazy, so is Kenya, the Middle East, as usual is looking doomed, SM Krishna is returning to Karnataka politics, BIAL is opening (with its interesting user fee concept), a world food crisis looks imminent, the stock market is acting like a cranky kid, so are gold prices, privacy concerns are freaking out people. But one can reflect on Walter Benjamin’s words:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge–unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” (written in 1940)

In other words, business is as usual. Coming back to the topic at hand, we had an interesting discussion in class about the importance of institutions, their design and management. One of the courses this semester is sustainable rural and urban development, both of which can be made into a course themselves. Though development-oriented courses emphasize on ‘how’ rather than ‘why’, this one has so far touched only ‘why’. We had a few case studies on Pani Panchayat, Ralegan Siddhi, Pabal and Tilonia, touching upon their salient features and looking at reasons for their success.

The question that arises first is why institutions after all? By institutions, one can mean anything from religion to marriage to Archie’s comics. Anything that sets up a predictable behavior pattern in individuals that subscribe to it, generation after generation. Any long term advancement of social life is possible only via institutions. Else, individuals make a great impact when they are there, and their influence vanishes after they are gone. Institutions provide a sense of security and stability to people. This is one of the reasons first time mothers almost blindly believe anything that their parents or grandparents or relatives (preferably female) tell them, however ridiculous it may seem. The process of socialization drives certain institutions deep into us, especially the ones most needed to live in society.

The problem with institutions arises when those that subscribe to it are given no choice. The burqa system is a good example. Many women may want to wear one and feel proud to do so, but why it is considered repressive is that the exceptions who do not want it are forced to wear one, for the sake of preserving tradition. This is an important characteristic of any institution: it carries within it rules to preserve itself. Government, caste, education (by means of recognition through educational qualifications) are other examples which strongly show this characteristic. Betty and Veronica are now institutions: there is no way Veronica can become the sweet girl next door anymore. Any attempt to do so(on a long term basis) will destroy the essence of Archie’s. Therefore, institutions tend to become rigid and ossified as time goes by. The reason for this is two-fold: the institution has a better chance of survival when there are no critics, and no competent people man the institution, and its rules become superstition instead of practical pointers to guide daily life. Only competent people who understand the reasons (if any) behind the formation of the rules laid down are in a position to change them. Trenchant critics as outsiders cannot, dullards running the show also cannot.

About their design. Realising that the longer an instituition survives, the more likely it will tend to establish a hegemony, one should make the basic precepts as accessible and open to debate as possible. Modern science no longer can lay claim to this feature. Even incremental changes require large amounts of ‘specialization’. Since not everyone become scientists and are not really bothered what scientists to unless it has a direct impact on them, this is (almost) acceptable. But everybody lives in a society, and must have a say in how they want to live and grow. The major issue now arising in development circles is the insinuation of western institutions into cultures which are neither prepared nor willing (mentally, physically, culturally) to accept them. Like I mentioned, institutions give a sense of stability and wholesale replacement is usually rejected by the majority. Deccan Herald recently ran an article where the author pities the Nandigram villagers because they rejected ‘modernization’ and was very sure they would regret it. He also called the landowners in Orissa greedy for not parting with their land for mining and other ways to rape land. While such attitude may seem shocking, it seems to be the attitude shared by those with power. ‘My way or the highway’ is hardly the perfect path for institutional reform/change.

And such issues in a democracy. Imagine what would be the situation in China or Venezuela or Cuba. The problem with such wholesale change is that the population becomes restive and loses its sense of autonomy, and tends to rely on others for direction. That is why farmers make loans knowing they cannot repay them (since the Government will waive them anyways) and new converts to a religion are the most intense. Technologists trying to put a laptop in every child’s, well, lap will inevitably cause similar problems. While undoubtedly institutions like caste and religion need reform, implementing them at a societal (rather than philosophical, where nobody gets hurt) level should be incremental and build on existing institutions, rather than reject them altogether. While this approach may not seem attractive to hot-blooded idealists, it is the path of least pain, which is most important.