The promise of reason

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The promise of reason

  1. 1. REVIEW ARTICLEThe promise of reasonJOHN M. ALEXANDER Speech serves to indicate not only what is usefuland what is harmful, but also what is just and what is unjust. 1
  2. 2. - AristotleSilence is a powerful enemy of social justice. - Amartya SenSURPRISINGLY, both Amartya Sen and V.S.Naipaul share nostalgia for a kind of "universalcivilisation" - an idea that recognises the value ofhuman life and spirit everywhere and at the sametime pays tribute to human individuality and culturaldiversity. This, they hope, would one day prevailover regionalism, casteism, racism and sectarianismin India and elsewhere in the world. And yet, whenreflecting on Indias past and future, Sen andNaipaul seem to depict contrasting images. Perhapsit is possible to relate to both these contrasting andyet undeniable portraits of India, and even begin towonder whether the contrast can ever be reconciled.In The Argumentative Indian that brings together 16essays on Indian history, culture and identity, Senhighlights the long-standing argumentative traditionof India and points out the importance of reviving itin contemporary social and political life. The book isan excellent interweaving of facts and values aboutIndia, and could be of interest not only to Indians but 2
  3. 3. to anyone who would be interested in a balancedview of India. The anthology, instead of being arandom collection of disparate essays, provides arich variety of perspectives on a central theme: theurgency of bringing back a culture of argumentationin confronting problems in public affairs.The use of arguments rather than physical force andviolence, the practice of dialogue and discussionrather than a straightforward imposition of onesviews, Sen reminds us, have been integral parts ofIndian tradition and history: "prolixity is not alien tous in India"; "we do like to speak"; "this is not a newhabit". Sen authenticates this by the fact that Indiahas been supportive of various religiousexperiences: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism,Islam, Christianity and others. Even moreimportantly, Sen corroborates this with Indiasintellectual pluralism: heterodoxies as different asscepticism, agnosticism, atheism and materialismhave coexisted with mainstream religious andphilosophical schools of thought; dissenting opinionsand viewpoints were considered necessaryprerequisites to advancements in literature, scienceand mathematics, already from the Vedic period;many well-developed calendars have been inpractice for a long time in Indias multicultural 3
  4. 4. history.What, then, happened to Indias argumentativeheritage over the years? One possible reason, Senexplains in Essay 7, is the preoccupation of the"exoticist" and "magisterial" interpretations of Indiaby the West, particularly, during the colonial periodand thereafter. Rationality and argumentation wereprojected to be something native and original only tothe West, whereas Indias uniqueness was assumedto consist in its `mystical and `spiritual traditions. Ofcourse, the mystical or spiritual in this context oftenmeant the absence or an insignificant presence ofintellectual legacy. This tendency seemed to havedialectically affected Indian self-perception as well.In their eagerness to stress what are uniquely their`own spiritual traits, Indians seemed to have notonly passively accepted a reductionist Westernimaging of Indian intellectual traditions, but havealso failed to keep alive a wide range of Indianrationalistic trends in logic, epistemology,psychology, linguistics, economics and politicalscience.Along with these, Sen also finds the increasingtendency to view Indian culture through the narrowprism of Hindutva and the recent attempts to make a 4
  5. 5. selective presentation of Indian history for justifyinganti-secular sentiments as deliberate efforts tosuppress the multiplicity of voices within a larger,plural Indian identity. Such efforts, Sen decries, arenothing but miniaturising "the broad idea of a largeIndia - proud of its heterodox past and its pluralistpresent" and replacing it by "the stamp of a smallIndia, bundled around a drastically down-sizedversion of Hinduism". If Tagore were to see the Indiaof today, Sen writes in Essay 5, he "would beshocked by the growth of cultural separatism" and"would have strongly resisted defining India inspecifically Hindu terms, rather than as a`confluence of many cultures". In the essay inspiredby Satyajit Ray, Sen finds in Ray a person whocelebrated the "dizzying contrasts" of cultures withinIndia and insisted on respecting their individuality.A major part of Sens anthology, particularly Essays1-2 and 9-12, does contemplate on the differentways of bringing back the practice of argumentation.One preliminary way, Sen points out, is thepossibility for all to participate in fair and effectiveelectoral politics. But when ballots and elections arealso more broadly linked to a "public expression" ofvalues of justice, respect and human dignity, andsupported by a "wider participation" of the media, 5
  6. 6. civil society groups and the general public in socialcriticism, political protest and public agitation, theycan go a long way in sustaining and strengtheningdemocracy. "Silence", says Sen, "is a powerfulenemy of social justice."Looking at Indias past and present, there are anumber of reasons to be less enthusiastic and evensceptical about Sens proposal: Does argumentationnot run the danger of being co-opted by the rich andthe powerful? Do the well-educated and those whocan better articulate and persuade not have an edgeover others to manoeuvre the course of publicdiscussion? For many years now, social inequalitiesbased on caste, gender and community have beenlegitimised and perpetuated by different religious,anthropological and even genetic theories biased infavour of the elite. Owing to democratic politics andthe rule of law, these inequalities can today becontested. Yet, making use of these democraticpossibilities in order to create a less unequal societystill remains a far distant dream, particularly becauseof the prevailing economic and educationalinequalities.Despite all these contradictions and possiblesetbacks, Sens guiding principle is that 6
  7. 7. argumentation can be an ally of the poor andpowerless in resisting hegemony. True, a moreaction-oriented political protests and publicagitations to demand a particular right for the poorwill catch the public eye and politicise the issue athand. They will also compel political leaders andmotivate policy-makers to take the desired course ofaction immediately. And yet when political activism isnot accompanied by public discussions andintellectual resources, sooner or later, it runs the riskof losing momentum, spirit and vigour. Indeed,political activism and critical argumentation shouldmutually support each other in order to evoke socialsolidarity and to provide an effective political voice tothe poor.IN India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), the thirdbook in his non-fiction trilogy on India, Naipaulcaptures a different feature of Indian life, differentfrom the one Sen wishes to revive. To Sen Indiamay appear to be a land of arguments and reason,but to Naipaul it comes out as a land of resentmentsand rage, although Naipaul would arrive at thiscomplex pronouncement by a complicated detour.Furthermore, despite the fact that both Sen andNaipaul commonly share a nostalgic sentiment forthe onset of universal civilisation, they seem to differ 7
  8. 8. from each other in their accounts of how peoplecome to grasp universal values.In his first account (1964), Naipaul called India "anarea of darkness", obscured in its poverty andwretchedness, obliterated in its chaos and ruins,mimicry and pathologies. In the second (1977), hecalled it a "wounded civilisation", wounded by manycenturies of foreign rule, and which has not yetfound its own sense of purpose for transformationand regeneration. Naipaul often uses words such as"wounded", "fragmented" and "degenerated" forsocieties that are stagnant and rootless.His capacity to observe and his brilliance totransform what he observes into words are, in thethird account, less mixed up with his temperament toprovoke and condemn. India then seemed toNaipaul as if "swallowing its own tail", incapable ofideology and renewal, unable to break with its pastcrisis and failures. But now, it turns out to be a landof revolutions, mutinies and rebellions.Independence had come to India like a revolution;now there were many revolutions within thatrevolution. What was true of Bombay was true ofother parts of India as well: of the state of AndhraPradesh, of Tamil Nadu, Assam, the Punjab. All over 8
  9. 9. India scores of particularities that had been frozenby foreign rule, or by poverty or lack of opportunityor abjectness had begun to flow again. S. SUBRAMANIUM Amartya Sen.Naipaul reads the arrival of revolutions in the faces,words and sentiments of Dalit leaders, Hindu andMuslim extremists, regional politicians, Sikhterrorists and naxalite rebels. He discerns that theserevolutions are not just passing events, but ratherthey are here to stay. These have, in fact, taken holdof the imagination of ordinary people, a wide cross-section of society: clerks, housewives, filmproducers, stockbrokers, journalists and holy men.Also, Naipaul realises that the present revolutionsare so very different from the `proto-revolution for 9
  10. 10. independence. Freedom from the colonial rulers wasworked out more or less by the people at the top.Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and others were in thelimelight; people had to just follow. But the series of`new revolutions works its way from the bottom:"people everywhere have ideas now of who they areand what they owe themselves."Notwithstanding all these positive signs of life,Naipaul seems dispirited about what is going on.Normally, revolution is a threshold for a new era;social upheavals usher in a new social order.Naipaul finds that the new revolutions do not havethis great stature. They look more like the failed`Indian Mutiny of 1857, with its terrible memories ofbrutality, revenge and backlash. They are inhibitedby gossip and petty quarrels, and break up into"particularities", "little wars", "revolutions withinrevolution" and a "million mutinies". In a deliberate orunintended move to blur reality and fiction, andprobably to say that his words and judgments in the1990s prevail even now, Naipaul carries over hisdispiritedness to Magic Seeds (2004), where WillieChandran, the `half-hero of Half a Life (2001), goeson a revolutionary expedition to India only to findthat he has joined the "wrong revolution" and "fallen 10
  11. 11. among the wrong people".After many years of revolutionary campaigns andimprisonment, he realises that the revolution "hadnothing to do with the village people" and "the poorare treated as the poor always are".The recent awakening to ones own claims andentitlements, in Naipauls perception, does not alsohave finesse. Out of the great revolutions thathistory has witnessed so far, emerged a larger ideaabout the value and dignity of human beings ingeneral. But out of the present ones emergesectarianism and parochialism: Dalits, Hindus,Muslims and others would have loyalties first to theirclan or faith; they would have no obligation towardsa "higher" or "general" idea about human solidarityand brotherhood; the word "brethren" becomesirony.And finally, what characterises and sustains thepost-Independence uprisings, for Naipaul, are notgreat "ideals" and well thought-out "strategies", butfeelings of anger, rage and resentments.To awaken to history was to cease to liveinstinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and onesgroup the way the outside world saw one; and it was 11
  12. 12. to know a kind of rage. India was now full of thisrage. There had been a general awakening. Buteveryone awakened first to his own group orcommunity; every group thought itself unique in itsawakening; and every group sought to separate itsrage from the rage of other groups.Naipaul discovers that feelings of resentment ofindividuals against individuals, groups againstgroups is not just a marginal phenomenon, but anall-India, all-encompassing experience: Ambedkar, adeified leader of Dalits whose photograph can befound in every Dalit house, "had remainedembittered to the end"; "male ego is the mosthideous thing in our present society", ventilates afeminist writer; "the local people were so full ofresentment against those Muslims that they hadclashes with them"; Shiv Sena, the army of Siva,which wanted Maharashtra to be for Maharashtrianstargeted its anger towards poor migrants of SouthIndia; "I should think that, like any other Indian, I hadno sense of ethical outrage in advocating killing for acause", justifies a naxalite rebel; and so on.Yet, Naipaul is not altogether dispirited. He imputesa pattern and meaning to the unrest and upheavals.He realises that people are not forever doomed to 12
  13. 13. be crippled by their clan loyalties and groupaffiliations. Indeed, they begin to grasp the generalidea of human values.Excess was now felt to be excess in India. What themutinies were also helping to define was thestrength of the general intellectual life, and thewholeness and humanism of the values to which allIndians now felt they could appeal. And - strangeirony - the mutinies were not to be wished away.They were part of the beginning of a new way formany millions, part of Indias growth, part of itsrestoration.Naipaul seems optimistic, but his optimism iscarefully measured out in small doses. Ironically,Naipauls realisation of the dawn of humanism onthe surface of Indian life seems a `naturalisticreading. It is a growth out of "excess": "groupexcess, sectarian excess, religious excess, regionalexcess". The liberation from the narrow affiliations ofcaste, creed or cult and the appeal to a broadernotion of human values arise not so much out ofreason and choice of individuals and groups, but outof excess and mutinies. People have indulgedthemselves in so much of violence and animosity,have gone through so much of anxiety and strife, 13
  14. 14. and have bottled up so much of resentment andhatred, that they cannot go on any more. Now at lastthey begin to realise how senseless andshortsighted they have so far been.IN narrative literature and social philosophy, thereare two different ways of viewing humanadvancements. The first one, reminiscent in someways of the 17th century philosopher Hobbes viewof society, suggests that societies, as it were,progress towards the recognition of the values oforder, toleration, justice and respect out of aninevitable necessity: periods of bloody andprolonged war create a longing for peace andagreements; too much of uncertainties andfragmentation create nostalgia for stability andwholeness; fear of anarchy and social chaos lead totoleration and rules of justice. One does not have toacknowledge, on this view, the role of moralreasoning or sympathy in societys progress.Perhaps Naipaul tries to infuse this moral scepticisminto his narratives. Without doubt, his narrativesabout India are literary masterpieces. But hisinvocation of the notion of excess in order to explainthe dawn of humanism and universal civilisationleaves his narratives rather unbalanced. Moreover, a 14
  15. 15. general assumption about the lack of moralmotivations and reasoned choices in individuals andgroups prior to the recognition of humanism ofvalues, and the idea that people arrive at the thoughtof universal civilisation out of excess can make onedoubt whether Naipaul is telling the whole storyabout India and her people.Resentment is a complex and compound humanemotion. Perhaps it may not be as overt as anger,but it can cause bouts of unmanageable violenceand rage. When argumentation is not mediated andresolved amicably, it is likely to leave residuals ofresentments in the participants. There is first andforemost a kind of resentment that arises due tosome misfortune or loss of self-respect suffered byindividuals and groups in society. But there is alsoanother kind of resentment that arises due to envyor a lack of magnanimity at the success or prosperityof others. Moreover, the degree of resentment canindeed be constructed to an irresolvable intensity ifthe victims - rightly or wrongly - are made to see thattheir misfortune was deliberately intended by theoffender. Likewise, the intensity of resentment canbe severe when the success or prosperity of myneighbour is perceived to be undeserved. 15
  16. 16. Quite paradoxically, most individuals and groups ofNaipauls narratives are presented as if carrying withthem extreme forms of resentment devoid of anymoral reasoning and sympathy. References tostories, anecdotes and `subaltern literature of howindividuals, groups and the nation as a wholethrough democracy and argumentation, successfullyor unsuccessfully, work their way out of resentmentscould have made Naipauls narratives morecomplete. Towards the very end of India: A MillionMutinies Now, Naipaul does make a passingreference to the "Indian state" as the "source of law,civility and reasonableness". However, this issomehow overshadowed by his overalldispiritedness about the mutinies and theirprotagonists, and by his preoccupation with thenotion of excess.A SECOND plausible view of social progress is whatSen seems to advocate and hope for. Not only doesSen acknowledge fully the role of moral reasoningand sympathy in human advancements, but he alsorealises that dialogue, argumentation and publicdeliberation are some of the surer ways of enrichingour moral imagination and universal convictions. InThe Argumentative Indian, Essay 13, Sen writes: 16
  17. 17. The possibility of reasoning is a strong source ofhope and confidence in a world darkened by horribledeeds. It is easy to understand why this is so. Evenwhen we find something immediately upsetting, orannoying, we are free to question that response andask whether it is an appropriate reaction andwhether we should really be guided by it. We canreason about the right way of perceiving and treatingother people, other cultures, other claims, andexamine different grounds for respect and tolerance. RAJEEV BHATT V.S. Naipaul.Sen does not deny that individuals and societieshave their dark moments. Dialogue, toleration andargumentation may have been Indias valuable 17
  18. 18. heritage. But these have always existedconcomitantly with bloody battles, communal killings,caste based atrocities and violence against women.Sen is also aware that often an unguarded reasonitself can be the cause of moral atrocities.Nevertheless, Sen counts heavily on the capacity ofhuman beings to step back in order to reflectcritically and consider different course of actions.The possible dangers of uncritical reasoning, arguesSen, require not an endorsement of moralscepticism, but rather a further critical scrutiny ofreason and a liberal encouragement of plurality ofvoices.Sens plea for the revival of argumentative traditionseems to make sense. In 1829, Raja Ram MohanRoys anti-sati (widow burning) campaignsuccessfully led to a law against the practice of satiand eventually paved the way for its disappearancefrom social life. Even though Roy and many othersaround him were convinced that sati was a morallyoutrageous act, a wider support for the campaignwas hard to come by until Roy marshalled differentarguments and initiated a public discussion on theissue. He had to base his case first and foremost ona critical reading of the shastras (Hindu scriptures) inorder to argue that the justification of sati was sheer 18
  19. 19. bad hermeneutics. Simultaneously, Roy also had toconvince the then British government that, even if itmeant an alleged interference in the religious affairsof people, it had a moral duty to outlaw a practicewhich was nothing short of murder. Above all, Royhad to expose to the public the fact that what reallymotivated sati was not religious commitment, butrather the greed of widows relatives to increase theirown share of inheritance and marital property.Indeed, Roys multi-pronged approach can continueto inspire efforts to counteract many deeply-embedded social evils.Sens eagerness to revive argumentation hasphilosophical aspirations as well. In Politics, Book I,Chapter 2, Aristotle assigns a political significance tothe capacity of human beings to speak andcommunicate, and elevates this capacity to the verycondition of being human. Here, Aristotle, at first, isamazed by the number of commonalities betweenanimals and humans especially by their socialnature. Keen, therefore, to suggest a trait that wouldbe typically human, he points out that it is thecapacity for "speech" (logos) that distinguisheshumans from non-human animals: animals haveonly "voice" (phone) and use them to communicatetheir feelings of pain and pleasure, whereas humans 19
  20. 20. have speech and use them to express not only whatis useful and hurtful, but also what is just and unjust.Argumentation, however, is a double-edged sword.It can positively be used to resist hegemony and topave the way for a more equitable society. But it canalso be manipulated by the elite to work in theirfavour. That is why when arguments are biased infavour of the privileged and well-educated and whenthe voices of the powerless are not listened to,resentment may seem inevitable. Oddly enough,Aristotle himself cannot be completely innocent ofcertain forms of elitism. Although he pointed out thatbeing human fundamentally involves a public sphereso that citizens can participate and interact withfellow citizens through their speech and action, hedid not draw this insight within an egalitarianframework. He seemed to have easily accepted theidea of his time that certain sections of society likeslaves, labourers and women did not have the freetime and qualities required for a fuller participation inpolitical life. The revival of Indian argumentativetradition, therefore, can shed light not only on theinconsistencies in Aristotles position, but also on thecontradictions in Indian social life.References: 20
  21. 21. Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian (London:Allen Lane/Penguin, 2005), pages 432.V.S. Naipaul, India: A Million Mutinies Now [1990](London: Vintage, 1998), pages 520.V.S. Naipaul, India: A Wounded Civilization [1977](London: Picador, 2002), pages 161.V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness [1964] (London:Picador, 2002), pages 290.V.S. Naipaul, Magic Seeds (London: Picador, 2004),pages 294.Printer friendly pageSend this article to Friends by E-Mail Subscribe | Contact Us | Archives | Contents (Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address) [ Home | The Hindu | Business Line | Sportstar Copyright © 2005, Frontline. Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited 21
  22. 22. without the written consent of Frontline 22

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