Akeel Bilgrami is an Indian philosopher of international eminence and scholarship. He graduated from Elphinstone College, University of Bombay, in 1970 and went to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Thereafter, he moved to the United States and earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1983. He currently holds the Sidney Morgenbesser Chair in Philosophy at Columbia University. Bilgrami was the Chairman of the Department of Philosophy from 1994 to 1998. He was the Director of The Heyman Centre for the Humanities at Columbia University from 2004 to 2011 and the Director of the South Asia Institute at Columbia University from 2013 to 2016.
Professor Bilgrami’s main intellectual interests are in the philosophy of mind and language, and in political philosophy and moral psychology. His PhD thesis, titled “Meaning as invariance”, was on the subject of the indeterminacy of translation and issues concerning realism.
Among his books in the philosophy of language and mind are Belief and Meaning (1992) and Self-Knowledge and Resentment (2006). His writings in the other central area of his intellectual interests, political philosophy and moral psychology, have significantly influenced and continue to influence our public discourse on politics, ideology, religion, modernity, culture and history. Along with Marxist intellectuals such as Samir Amin, it is Bilgrami who has exposed and provided high-ranging criticism of liberalism and its limitations as a political ideology in our contemporary times.
According to Bilgrami, liberalism and liberal politics have their own limitations and cannot save us from the savagery of capital. In this way, he intellectually provokes us to go beyond liberalism and reimagine an alternative political vocabulary. His philosophy rejects the ideology of capitalism and envisions an alternative as the way forward for humanity. This alternative is, of course, Left-centric and socialistic in perspective, and Bilgrami sympathises with the Left politics in his home country and others.
His writings and philosophical ideas on the themes of secularism, modernity, Marxism and Gandhi have produced new perspectives on these and contributed significantly to our intellectual debates. His highly influential essay “Gandhi, the Philosopher” provides a fresh reading of Mahatma Gandhi. Bilgrami unearths the integrity in Gandhi’s ideas, contrary to the popular notion of inconsistency and fragmentation in Gandhi. As a philosopher, Bilgrami, despite being an atheist, does not completely reject the scope of religion having a critically instructive role in our time. As he says, “religion is not primarily a matter of belief and doctrine but about the sense of community and shared values that it can sometimes provide in contexts where other forms of solidarity—such as a strong labour movement—are missing, and it sometimes provides a moral perspective for a humane politic as it did in the liberation theology movement in Central America.”
Bilgrami’s attempt to provide a fresh look at modernity is noteworthy. Pinpointing the basic weaknesses and the Eurocentric nature of modernity as well as its domination by liberal politics, Bilgrami seeks to find a theoretical framework by which one can go past the constriction of possibilities that liberalism and the merely regulatory constraints of social democracy have forced on modern societies.
His novel reading of similarities in Marx and Gandhi is also important. Bilgrami establishes commonality or similarity in the epistemological worlds of Marx and Gandhi, and in their critiques of the phenomenon of alienation, which is an indispensable character of capitalism in its all avatars.
Professor Bilgrami is influenced by Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Donald Davidson and Noam Chomsky, among others. His important works in this area include a vast number of essays and books, such as Secularism, Identity and Enchantment (2014), Marx, Gandhi and Modernity (2014) and Democratic Culture (2011).
In this in-depth interview, Akeel Bilgrami speaks on a wide range of issues of intellectual relevance and contemporary importance such as the relationship between Gandhi and Marx, issues of modernity, Chomsky’s philosophy, personal influences, academic philosophy in India, secularism, caste and current politics in India, Hindutva politics and the criminal threat of the present government, the Hindutva political challenge and ways of resistance, and the importance of Left politics.
UNEARTHING INTEGRITY IN GANDHI
In your famous essay “Gandhi, the Philosopher”, you were making a fresh reading of Mahatma Gandhi as a philosopher. In your own words you were “struck by the integrity of his ideas”. What do you mean by “integrity” in Gandhi’s ideas?
That essay was written over 20 years ago and it is almost as if I was prompted to write it in order to register something quite personal. I grew up in a home, a secular Muslim home, in which Nehru was held in such affection and admiration that one thought of him as if he were an elderly member of one’s own family. My father would refer to him as “Jawaharlal” even though he hadn’t, so far as I know, ever met him. Growing up, I had read almost everything he had written, including many of the speeches and less well-known writings that have been collected. Gandhi was respected, of course, but he was a more distant figure. And I had not read anything but his autobiography. When I began to read Gandhi in the early 1990s, I realised—slowly, reluctantly, overcoming my upbringing—that he was a far deeper and far more original thinker than Nehru. Even where one disagreed with him, one saw how strikingly independent his thinking was, how he came to familiar issues from surprising angles. And one very striking feature of his work, I realised, was that, at its most ambitious, you couldn’t see many of the things he said about politics as being independent of his much more abstract thought about human nature and experience, about moral values, and about the nature of what he took the concept of “truth” to be. Very specific political claims he made were of a piece with, perhaps even derivable from, his views regarding these more remote notions. It is this integration of politics with high philosophy that I described with the term “integrity”.
Mahatma Gandhi was a mass leader who fought the British and led the national movement. At the same time, he was leading a spiritual life and experimenting with spiritual practices and what he himself described as “my experiments with truth”. This was quite unique and rare. No modern great figure combined both in such a unique fashion anywhere in the world. Would you agree?
Yes, I would. There is a great tendency today to think that Gandhi’s political successes (as a historical figure who made a tremendous difference to the direction that Indian politics took) have an interest for us quite independent of his philosophy. I think, actually, that this is a preposterous view. Not only would he not have had those successes in the effect his actions had on people and, therefore, on events, but I don’t think we would be talking about him incessantly today in classrooms and in drawing rooms in the way we do, not to mention writing about him in journals and books, if he wasn’t the philosopher he so manifestly was. He simply would not have had the impact he did on his colleagues and he would not have generated the prodigious mobilisations he did, if his political actions were not integrated with his philosophical ideas. That integrity is undoubtedly an essential element in the appeal he had for the Indian masses. It is those who don’t see the mass of a country’s people as capable of responding to such integrity and who see them responding only to his political skills that have this cramped view of Gandhi; and I think it is a view that reveals an undemocratic understanding of mass politics, of what the mass of people are capable of and of what they are responding to.
On the other hand, I should tell you that there is a view abroad (which is said, by those who hold it, to have been influenced by something I have written, an influence I strongly disavow) that claims Gandhi to be an “anti-political” thinker. This view is preposterous in inversely equal proportion to the view of Gandhi I just spoke of. What I had said at the end of that first article you have mentioned, which is supposed to have had this influence, is the following: Gandhi’s studied indifference towards notions of rights and constitutions and codes of that kind came from his scepticism about a certain conviction of the political Enlightenment (perhaps the most fundamental commitment of the political Enlightenment, from which all other commitments to rights, constitutions etc., flow) that what was bad in us can be corrected by good politics. As I put it there, Gandhi did not think (as the political Enlightenment pretty much did) that you could make human beings better by transforming them into citizens. When I said all this, I was, first of all, only suggesting that Gandhi did not think that what is bad in us could be put right by politics. I was not, by any means, suggesting that he thought that harms and oppressions in the world should not be resisted by a political mobilisation. And second, I was also only suggesting that this amounted to a scepticism about the claimed efficacies of a certain kind of codified liberal politics that defined the notion of “citizenship” that typically evolved ever since Westphalia in the political Enlightenment. I wasn’t suggesting that he was not committed to all or any politics.
You will have noticed that both these readings of Gandhi that I am calling preposterous are made for each other. They both deny exactly what I am calling his “integrity”, the latter view claiming that he is all and only a philosopher with no serious interest in politics, the former claiming that our interest in him is only in his political successes, not his remote philosophy. The idea of “integrity”, thus, is precisely intended to convey that for all their open contrast with each other, these two views share an underlying common flaw in that they fail to perceive what I am calling Gandhi’s “integrity”.
GANDHI & MARX
Generally, Gandhi and Marx are considered as two great figures who are at two poles. But you have identified some important similarities between them. This is based on your argument that both shared a similar critique of modernity as they considered alienation from nature and us as the basic traits of modernity. What are the similarities of thought in Gandhi and Marx and how do you explain it in the context of modernity?
Yes, as you know, Gandhi was quite roundly criticised by the Left both in India and abroad for many decades. I don’t particularly want to comment on the contemporary Leftist writers who have taken to anti-Gandhian invective. And, in any case, it would be absurd to think that Gandhi did not make some serious political mistakes or to deny that he had views that were sometimes quite wrong. But I do think that there is a very interesting and very original “radical” or left-wing Gandhi to be unearthed from his writings and many of his deeds as well. In doing so, one has to be selective, of course. But that is true of most important thinkers. Like all of them, Gandhi’s thought and writings contained inconsistencies, but in a way it is worse with him, no doubt because, though he was a remarkable philosopher, he was not a salaried philosopher who strives for consistency—he often said and wrote things in the context of immediate political demands from the world around him and those remarks were, as one should expect, sometimes at odds with what he said in more reflective writings.
It was Irfan Habib, in some articles, who first broke away from some of the Leftist clichés about Gandhi. I had not read these when I wrote that early essay. Irfan Saheb’s sympathetic perspective was, in any case, historical. My initial interest in Gandhi was far more philosophical.
The affinities with Marx that I have recorded are admittedly not on the surface of either of their writing. It is a matter of interpretation both of Gandhi and of Marx. In Marx, I stress the early writings and the very late writings of his last decade on the Russian mir. And I try to understand the monumental analysis of capital through both these. As for Gandhi, I see him—in a work like Hind Swaraj but also in a vast number of dispatches and letters of his that have been collected (including the remarkable correspondence with Tagore)—as someone who thought that India, at the time he was writing ( Hind Swaraj was published in 1909), was on the cusp that Europe was in in the Early Modern period. And he did not want India to go down the path that Europe had taken from Early Modernity to Late Modernity. He thought that alternatives to that path were entirely possible for India and in this respect his outlook shares something with Marx in the last period of his life when he was writing about Russia’s peasant communes. In these writings, Marx argued that countries like Russia (and there is some discussion of India, too, with very revealing criticism of people like Henry Maine) need not go through the incubation of capitalism that Europe had gone through in order to seek a revolutionary transformation. Of course, Gandhi was not a socialist and didn’t seek, in his visionary hopes, a socialist future for India. I would go so far as to say that Gandhi had no serious understanding of the notion of “class”, as we have come to think of it. But he hated capitalism and what it did to human mentality and human society. Hind Swaraj is really about this last theme. And Hind Swaraj is so shrill and extreme in its anti-modernism, I think, because Gandhi was anxiously (but shrewdly) aware that if capitalism begins to take hold, it really gets very entrenched in ways that it had in the passage from Early to Late Modernity in Europe, and it then affects all human attitudes and social relations very adversely and very pervasively and deeply.
But even putting aside these affinities with Marx, if I am right that Gandhi thought India was at the crossroads that Europe was in, in the Early Modern period, and that he wanted to pre-empt the developments in political economy (and their deleterious cognitive and social effects) that occurred in subsequent European modernity, then an equally good comparison is with other radical dissenting voices in Early Modern Europe. For that reason, I have situated a lot of Gandhi’s thinking as being in intellectual alliance, not just with Marx, but with pre-Marxian radical thinkers like Gerrard Winstanley in Early Modernity, who sought to pre-empt developments (in England, in his case) that he presciently foresaw as emerging from the enclosures movement and the privatisation of the commons and the converting of agrarian ways of life into what we would now call “agri-business”.
How do you intellectually deal with the concept of modernity? How modernity shaped and influenced us in all parts of the world. What about the criticisms of modernity raised by many theorists for its “instrumental rationality”, “Western-centric nature”, “anti-religious”, “Grand narrative”, etc.?
I do feel that one cannot have been anti-imperialist through the last century without having, in some sense, been anti-modern. I say “in some sense” and mean it. It’s not obvious at all what that sense of anti-modern exactly is and ought to be. That is a very complex question. Many bad answers have been given to that question. A lot of my work has been struggling with that question. Though there are many more subtle things to say, the first and obvious thing to notice is an elementary transitivity: imperialism is essential to capitalism and since capitalism is an economic formation of modernity, being anti-imperialist in any fundamental way is necessarily to be opposed to capitalism and that would, eo ipso, mean being opposed to modernity. Of course, many who sought independence from colonial rule were not opposed to imperialism in any deep way, so they never accepted this simple point. But it is this point that brought Gandhi and the Left together. The Left, of course, focussed much more directly on the economic structures of colonialism and an emerging capitalism in its opposition, whereas Gandhi’s opposition, as I said earlier, was more focussed on the cognitive and cultural fall-out of capitalist modernity.
You list a number of portmanteau terms towards the end of your question to summarise recent theoretical critical angles on modernity. I find each one of them, as they have been wielded by critics of modernity, a little too blunt. So take, for instance, “instrumental rationality” used as a term of opprobrium. What is it meant to convey? Very broadly speaking, it is meant to capture how, in modernity, we have made reason too focussed on how to identify and pursue the most efficient means for the goals that have emerged in bourgeois society. Now, opposing this tendency of reason (let us, for the sake of abbreviation, call that anti-instrumentalism), would require very careful attentiveness to the detail of what “instrumentality” or “instrumentalism” amounts to. Gandhi understood this well. As I say in some of my writing on him, he asks a genealogical question about modernity that seems to be anti-instrumentalist, that seems to have located a very general instrumentality that he opposes: “How and when did we transform the concept of the “world” as not merely a place to live in but a place to master and control?” But that question is so general, so omnibus, that one has no idea how to go about answering it. In Gandhi’s work, we find that he breaks it down to four different detailed questions: How and when did we transform the concept of nature to the concept of natural resources? How and when did we transform the concept of human beings to the concepts of citizens? How and when did we transform the concept of people into the concept of populations? And, how and when did we transform the concept of knowledges (to live by) into the concept of expertise (to rule by)? Now, if one goes on to answer all these questions in specific detail and then return to show in detail how these answers are not answers to four miscellaneous questions, but, at bottom, answers to the same question (the initial omnibus question) only then would we have said something meaningful by deploying the term “anti-instrumentalism”. Until then, it is all just airy hand-waving and clichés about “means and ends”. Similar cautionary points can be made about all the anti-modernity critical terms you cite.
One line of criticism I pursue in trying to understand the failures of modernity is to point out first (what is surely widely known) that its two chief sloganised ideals of “liberty” and “equality”, as soon as they were articulated by the political Enlightenment, were theoretically and methodologically developed in such a way that they were in tension with one another. This is for reasons that have been well-studied such as, for instance, most conspicuously the fact that the possession of property bestowed on the possessor a notion of liberty that became erected into the law of the land as a fundamental right everywhere in the spread of liberal modernity. How this generates tensions with the goal of equality are so well-known and so well mined that I don’t need to say anything more about it. Much less well-studied is another source of the tension between liberty and equality, which comes from the incentivisation of talent that owes to liberty attaching to notions of dessert. For centuries, when there was some excellence of production (say, a work of art), it was the zeitgeist which produced it that got the praise and admiration. If you take the long historical view, it is relatively recently that individual talent began to get the praise and reap the reward for such productions. And this happened partly out of a growing ideological view that to praise the zeitgeist for such excellence was to deny a person’s individuality, it was to see the individual person responsible for these productions as mere physical embodiments of the zeitgeist. Thus, notions of dessert became tied to the notion of individual liberty and talent thereby got incentivised. Indeed, it became part of a generalised liberty because it spread over to the idea of the liberty of others to enjoy the excellence of the productions of individual talent since the latter now was incentivised to be as excellent as it could be. So, by the time you come to our contemporary times, you have merit raises for salaried professionals, bonuses for bankers, endorsements for sportsmen, prizes for authors of books, on and on… all in the name of individual liberty; and it should be obvious how all this too gives rise to tensions with aspirations to equality. For these (and other) reasons, then, modernity’s main political tradition developed its two great ideals of liberty and equality in a way that they could not be jointly realised.
Having observed this, I turned again to Marx and Gandhi and observed further that they never made either of these ideals central to their thought. Marx explicitly dismissed liberty and equality as bourgeois ideals. And Gandhi, as is well known, showed a complete indifference to these liberal notions and the codes and institutions that were supposed to enshrine them. I think these sources of the tension between liberty and equality were central to their rejection of both ideals, even if they did not put it in just the way I have. And I believe that they both sought something much more fundamental, much more human, and even ageless, than these ideals of Enlightenment modernity.
What they both sought to make the fundamental and eventual goal of their respective conceptions of revolutionary politics (which were no doubt very different since Gandhi was not a socialist in any obviously recognisable sense) was the overcoming of alienation, or what I call the ideal of an “unalienated life”. They both saw the most underlying malaise of modernity to be the alienation that was generated by its tendencies, chief among which were the tendencies of capital. I believe learning these lessons from Gandhi and Marx is a good start in identifying the right and relevant sense of “anti-modern” that I had mentioned.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by the Marxist and Gandhian ideal of the “unalienated life” replacing the modern liberal ideals of liberty and equality?
Yes, sure. This reading of Gandhi and Marx as replacing the ideals of liberty and equality does not mean that those ideals are irrelevant. But they cannot be the notions any longer that are found in liberal modernity. Let me try to explain. Put aside Marx and Gandhi, who are the inspirations for this form of critique of modernity, and let us look at this general issue of how to reconfigure our political ideals along these lines. In my writing, I’ve presented it basically in Kuhnian terms. Thomas Kuhn had said that radical changes in theory (what he called paradigm shifts) do not retain the old concepts and say better things about them. Rather, they change the subject. They re-conceptualise the old concepts in a new framework. It’s a meaning-change, not a theory-change. For theory change, the meanings have to be constant. But what happens in radical shifts is that the meanings get revised. So, for instance, “mass” in Einstein’s physics does not mean what it means in Newtonian mechanics. Thus, it cannot be counted as an improvement of Newtonian mechanics. It really changes the subject rather than improves the theory on that subject. Exactly that is the proposal with the ideals of liberty and equality. One shouldn’t be trying to improve on the theories of the Enlightenment, one should discard those theories as being based on the wrong (“bourgeois”, as Marx called them) ideals.
The next question, obviously, is: what would bring about the change in their meanings? And my thought has been that if we remove liberty and equality—riddled with inner tension as they are—from the theoretical centre stage that they have had in European modernity and put on centre stage instead the ideal of an unalienated life, then one can bring liberty and equality back (from the back door, as it were) but no longer as central now, but only as necessary conditions for this more fundamental ideal that is on centre stage. The idea is that if this is properly done, there would be a serious chance of removing the inner tension between liberty and equality that was present when they were the central notions.
So, everything turns on what is meant by “properly done” and much of my recent theoretical exertions have been focussed on that task. The first task, obviously, is to say something about what is meant by “alienation”, so that one can be clear about what one is seeking in seeking the ideal of an unalienated life.
Right at the outset, it should be said that if you take up this dialectic that I’ve set up between these three ideals, “alienation” becomes an ambiguous term. How so?
It’s an interesting fact about alienation that all its most well-known theorists (Rousseau, Marx, Gandhi, Sartre, to name just a few) saw it as a malaise only of modernity. Premodernity had many horrible defects but alienation was not one of them. Even slaves and serfs had a sense of belonging, whatever else they didn’t have. In fact, the introduction of liberty and equality as central ideals in modernity was intended partly to address those defects and deprivations suffered in premodern societies. But now, if in my dialectic liberty and equality are supposed to be necessary conditions for the achievement of the unalienated life, what is meant by “unalienated life” cannot possibly be the unalienated life of premodernity since in premodernity it was precisely un accompanied by liberty and equality. So, the term is being used ambiguously.
The theoretical task here is quite ambitious—because I’m trying to transform three concepts at once. I’m trying to transform the concepts of liberty and equality, as I said at the start, by removing them from the centrality they have had in the modern period and making them merely necessary conditions for the more central ideal of the unalienated life, but now I am also saying that I am trying to transform the notion of an unalienated life from what it was as exemplified in premodernity. So, it is a triangular transformation of all three concepts in concert, all at once, that I am seeking.
I won’t try and explain how exactly I’ve tried to do this. It would be hard to spell it out in a brief interview. I’ll just say that it involves a close look at and a critique of how liberal modernity in its theorising has presented the outlook and framework of political economy and politics, from Locke’s contractualist arguments for property down to more recent game-theoretic consolidations of Locke in multi-person prisoners’ dilemma style arguments about the “tragedy of the commons”, and trying also to get beyond the limited nature of the regulatory answers to such arguments that are found in Elinor Ostrom’s (superb) work on the commons, responding to these arguments. It is very much a contemporary philosopher’s effort to address these issues, but in the end the ideas and arguments I present are really in the service of a critique of liberal modernity that can be found, in one or other form, in both Marx and Gandhi.
Let me conclude my already too lengthy answer to your question by making one point that I feel quite strongly about, even though it may seem terminological. It is tempting to say that Marx is a figure of the Enlightenment and so how can I present him as the source of a critique of modernity? I think this is a tiresomely unhelpful way of thinking of intellectual history. It is simply to deny the weight and preponderance of liberalism in shaping modernity, which, to this day, has a dominant hold on society and is even entirely complicit, I would argue, with the so-called right-wing populist efforts to oppose it. The political Enlightenment and its legacy is massively shaped by liberal thought and ideals. It completely distorts things to see the Enlightenment as a mere ragbag of doctrines and ideas in which Locke and Mill and Hegel and Marx can all be thrown in. It is far more intellectually honest to say that there were radically dissenting voices such as Marx, and Marx was in many ways part of the Romantic tradition of thought. If you take a book like Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down in which he looks at early radical and communistic views during the period of the English Revolution, you will find antecedents to Marx who were presenting ideas that would have—if they had won out rather than been suppressed—pre-empted the path that England and Europe took from Early Modernity to Late Modernity. These ideas were the antecedents to Marx and they are the start of a trajectory that goes via Romantic thought, both in England and Germany, to Marx. In fact, very often in that book, when Christopher Hill wants to present some of these radical ideas, he quotes Blake, as do other Left historians and intellectual historians like E.P. Thompson. But the Romantics often get counted as the “counter”-Enlightenment. Where does that leave one then, when a trajectory that some will describe as the counter-Enlightenment gets to fall under the label “Enlightenment”? So, I think it is just a dogmatic hanging-on to the word “Enlightenment” to insist that figures like Marx and Gandhi and the Romantics must all be counted as part of the Enlightenment. It makes for much greater clarity (not to mention intellectual honesty) to simply admit, what is in fact the case, that terms like “modernity” and “the Enlightenment” are self-congratulatory terms that surfaced when it became clear that liberal doctrine and institutions (including the institutions and policies that surround capital, as well as the constraints on capital that emerged with “social democracy”) had put their stamp on Europe from the seventeenth century on. So, I insist and repeat: modernity is pervasively defined by liberalism and the social democratic ideas that constrain classical liberalism.And the fact is that modernity, so understood, though it has, as I said, been dominant, has not been and still is not totally comprehensive in its reach. There have been dissenting radical voices (going well beyond the social democratic constraints that liberalism takes well within its stride) against modernity from the early radicals of the seventeenth century through the Romantics and Marx down to Gandhi. To count these latter ideas as part of the Enlightenment and the modernity it defined, is simply to bloat our categories to the point that they are unrecognisable and unhelpful in coming to any clear understanding of the issues at stake. And worse, it has the double effect of, on the one hand, giving over the critique of modernity to completely reactionary outlooks and, on the other, giving the Left a kind of narrow orthodox stamp that prevents it from exploring these interesting affinities between thinkers like Marx and Gandhi.
We don’t know whether it is fair to differentiate philosophy country-wise. But in academic studies and other philosophic discourses, there is what is called Indian philosophy. Of course, every society would produce and would have its own philosophy. However, can you attribute and find out some basic characters and ideas of Indian philosophy. What actually constitutes Indian philosophy? How it is different from Western philosophy, which you have been trained in? How do you engage with other traditions of philosophy?
I must not venture opinions on a subject that I’ve never studied with any care and only have a glancing knowledge of based on secondary commentary.
My own instinct (it is not a scholarly judgment) is that different traditions of philosophy, whether in the English-speaking world or in German, French, Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit…are all addressing more or less the same issues, even if they do so in dramatically different idioms (and I don’t mean natural language idioms, but conceptual idioms). Of course, the different historical and social contexts of these traditions sometimes make for different issues being salient in each, but that is equally true within the same tradition at different historical times. So, for instance, in the Francophone tradition, no one could understand Sartre’s Existentialism who did not situate it in the historical and social context of France under the Occupation, and there is not much resonance of the issues that preoccupy Sartre within the same tradition, say, in Montaigne or de Maistre. But apart from such contextually determined differences, which can occur within and across traditions of philosophy, I really do feel that most philosophical traditions, however different their conceptual vocabularies and methods are, by and large focus on the same conceptual issues.
Though I am very much a product of philosophy in the English-speaking tradition, some of the more interesting discussions of philosophical ideas I’ve had are with those who are not scholars within that tradition. I’ve had very interesting discussions about philosophy with my colleague Sheldon Pollock (on aesthetic ideas as also on different ways of thinking of the concept of “truth”), or my colleague, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, in the French Department (with whom I’ve discussed ideas in Iqbal and Bergson and Senghor)—we have, in fact, taught graduate seminars together on the political philosophies of Gandhi, Nehru, Iqbal and Senghor. I also taught seminars with Edward Said, who was not a philosopher at all, on the Philosophy of History from Vico through the “Verstehen” tradition to Hegel and Marx. No doubt, what I brought to these collective discussions and seminars was the perspective of an analytic philosopher trained in the English-speaking tradition, but none of this would really have been possible if different traditions of thought did not have the same concepts and conceptual problems that vexed them.
In contrast with the Western societies, a subject like philosophy has not grown much as an academic discipline in India. Though it is highly relevant and needed, except here and there in some institutes, the subject has been largely neglected in India. This is also true with some other social science subjects. Why such neglect? As a philosopher, what do you have to say on this low regard for a subject like philosophy in India?
One of the things that I had noticed in academic philosophy in India until a few years ago was the far greater weight put on the history of philosophy than on “doing” philosophy, if you see what I mean. I recall during the discussion after one of my talks in India, asking a question to a faculty member about how he thought we should analyse the concept of “freedom” and his response was “Sankara said…” He really had no inkling that what I was asking him was about what he would say. I think that has changed a lot in recent years. By contrast, for many decades, English-speaking analytic philosophy completely ignored the history of its own subject, putting all its focus on analysing concepts. All that has changed now. But while these biases existed, there was an impoverishment of the subject on both sides.
Let me just make two points about academic philosophy in India. The first is that we must admit that it is not and has not been, since Independence, anyway, as strong as subjects like history and economics. There is just no getting away from this. It would take too long to try and diagnose why this might be so. But it is just a fact. Having said that, I would like to point out that in the last couple of decades, basically since neoliberal policies and what is called “globalisation” got entrenched in our country, a subject like economics and, quite generally, the social sciences, lost the vibrancy and the independence of thought that they had shown in the decades immediately after Independence, and have taken to mimicking the curricular and ideological prejudices of Western universities, including their protocols for research. This has evacuated them both of the historically oriented and the value-oriented approaches to their subjects. I think of this as an appalling abdication on the part of contemporary scholarship in these disciplines. And I think, as a result, this is a moment for academic philosophy in India to pick up the slack created by this abdication in these disciplines and broaden out to consider philosophically, social, political, and economic issues that confront us and the history and intellectual history by which we have been landed with these issues. That would make philosophy a quite exciting thing to do in our time in India. There may be pressures from a globalised society that impoverishes economics and the social sciences in these ways I’ve mentioned, but philosophy does not face the same pressures and so it may well be a time for it to step up with this chivalrous reach to do things that other disciplines are manifestly failing to do within their departments.
You are highly influenced personally and intellectually by Noam Chomsky. As a philosopher what is your take on the influence of Chomsky’s theory of language, the universal grammar, and so on?
Only recently, I had to write a long foreword to his book called What Kind of Creatures Are We, in which he elaborates his most current views on linguistics, philosophy, etc., and it would perhaps be best if I just directed you to that Foreword rather than try to spell out my understanding of his remarkable corpus of work in a short while now.
But let me just say one very general thing about his work in this area since there is so much unnecessary controversy about it. There is a lot of criticism of him that quite fails to understand what he means by “language”, and so the criticisms are quite beside the point. Even so thoughtful a philosopher as Charles Taylor is guilty of this in his otherwise very interesting recent book on language.
What one has to keep in mind about Chomsky is that one will never understand what his account of language is unless one is clear about the fact that he takes it to be first and foremost a biological phenomenon, not a social and communicative phenomenon. He starts with the idea that our (human) biology is unique in being the location of, or for, a capacity for language. And it is, as such, that he proceeds to analyse and explain that capacity. As a result, for him, the communicative function of language is quite ancillary. He is not primarily interested in the vocalised language that has a social purpose for human beings and with which words we produce refer to things in the world. He doesn’t have anything against studying those aspects of human life, but he does not think that those things are scientifically tractable and explainable. You can say scattered wise things about them, you can say very interesting things about them, but they can’t be what the science of language is about. And Chomsky’s work is primarily the work of a scientist of language. He has nothing against other people being interested in other interesting things about language, but what he wants to produce is a scientific account in the way that scientists try to produce explanatory accounts in physics, chemistry, biology…. So, he is focussed on something relatively limited and he is very modest about these self-consciously imposed limitations. For him, language has a structure that is very close to the structure of thought or cognition and those structures are ultimately biologically grounded, though till we know more about the biological science involved, one has to track them at the cognitive and computational level. Chomsky was one of the two or three people who founded the subject of cognitive science. Even evolutionary accounts of language will get things wrong if they don’t identify the phenotype correctly in this way. We need an evolutionary account of a biological capacity, not of how we gradually came to develop the sophisticated communicative skills that we have.
I am just pointing all this out because I think the incessant critiques of Chomsky by anthropologists and sociologists of language (and many others) are just off beam. They are talking about a notion of language that he is not talking about at all. (I still remember hearing—as a graduate student—a quite brilliant anthropologist at the University of Chicago giving a shrill, almost hysterical dithyramb against Chomsky one day, and remember coming away from it thinking, “Is he talking about the same person that I’ve been reading in my theoretical linguistics class?”) They are just ships passing Chomsky by at night while pretending that they are engaging with him.
Which philosopher influenced you the most and which system of philosophy shaped you the most?
No one philosopher or system of thought has shaped my thinking, though Marx’s thought has, in some loose sense, provided a framework within which to think about politics and society. Questions of politics and society interested me intensely when I was an undergraduate in Bombay [now Mumbai] and at Oxford and then again since the very late 1980s. In between, I was almost exclusively first studying and then writing about issues of language and mind, and I was relatively apolitical while doing that scholarly work, though I kept myself informed and, I suppose, opinionated on politics even through this period of more remote study.
As a child, I grew up in a home with a vast number of books because my father was quite a serious and wide-ranging reader. There were many books on philosophy in my father’s library and I dipped into them from time to time. He was also a very engaging conversationalist and I’d speak to him at length about what I read. I read a lot of Bertrand Russell quite early on in my teens. I read a lot of Marx through my college days. Though my subject was English literature in Elphinstone College in Bombay, I was much influenced by a very articulate and quite brilliant philosophy professor called James Swamidasan. In England, I was influenced by two philosophers, P.F. Strawson and a very fiery, hellishly intelligent, much younger person called Gareth Evans, who died tragically early. In the United States, while I was studying for and writing a PhD, I worked with a philosopher called Donald Davidson, with whom Evans had advised me to go and study, and with whom I became close friends—and I learnt a lot from him.
At Columbia, I’ve been influenced, to some extent, by my conversations with my colleague, Isaac Levi. And, as you’ve noticed, Noam Chomsky’s philosophical work on language has been an abiding influence on me and we have kept up a steady conversation about some of those themes (as well as about a politics that we broadly share) over the years. I’ve admired his political activism ever since I was a student at Elphinstone College, but I only got to know about his work on language when I was first at Oxford and then later at the University of Chicago. Chomsky is a very rare sort of person, and I feel a sense of privilege (as no doubt, many others do) to be alive in the time he is.