Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-5

Introduction (Concluded)

The third chapter (Theories and Shifting Domains) inquires into the sense in which scientific theories in the formal mode identify a stretch of the world. The contemporary discipline of linguistic theory is an interesting example to study in this context because of its recentness; we are able to study its entire history in a stretch to see whether the reality of human language has come into sharper focus as the theory progressed. After a brief exposition of the basic joints of the theory, it turns out that even within its short history the object of the theory has become increasingly theory-laden for Chomsky (1991) to remark that perhaps there is no such thing as language.
    The fourth chapter (The Skeptic and the Cognitivist) adds another dimension to the skepticism just raised. This chapter joins issue with recent claims from the cognitive sciences that the ancient discipline of philosophy is beginning to lose its relevance for understanding human cognition. We focus again on the new discipline of linguistic theory, which is perhaps the most promising program in the cognitive sciences. As the work of philosophers of language mentioned earlier highlighted, the basic classical interest in the study of language has been that humans have the astonishing ability to talk about the world: the semantic ability. As hinted earlier, the theoretical resources of linguistic theory seem to fall far short of the philosophical interest.
  Having secured something like a zone of autonomy for the philosophical form of inquiry in the fourth essay, the fifth chapter (From Things to Needs) attempts to develop the idea of autonomy by focusing on the general form of classical Indian philosophy. It may be justly complained that, unlike Western philosophy, this philosophy has lost its relevance because it never interacted with the vast edifice of European science. This conclusion will follow only under the assumption that scientific knowledge over-rules or replaces philosophical inquiry. A quick look at the origin and form of Indian philosophy suggests that its goals might not have been to discover properties of the world at all. A salient goal for philosophical inquiry, distinct from the sciences, could be to formulate conditions of human reflective needs for cognitive agents to lead rational lives. The study of needs seems to be fundamental to philosophical inquiry since its presence can be located even in classical Western philosophy when it is shorn off its ‘scientific’ goals. Interestingly, the study of the mind—the contentious domain under consideration—offers some promising evidence on this issue. In this light, each of the concepts of consciousness, knowledge and belief may be understood very differently from their alleged ‘mentalistic’ features discussed in the received literature.
    The next three chapters (Yearning for Consciousness, Ascription of Knowledge, Beliefs and Believers) cover the alternative perspective. The chapters exploit the general distinction between description and ascription. While the goal of descriptions is to examine properties of objects, ascriptions suggest devices of personal evaluation. Each chapter thus consists of two distinct parts. In the first part, we show that the current state of philosophical inquiry on these concepts is at best uncertain; there appear to be fundamental conceptual darkness around them. However, each concept turns out to be salient when we think of them as recommending different evaluative attitudes towards persons and communities to enable us to get a grip on our inter-personal lives.
   The idea of placing much of philosophical inquiry into the cultural mode raises the issue of whether the notion of the cultural, as distinct from the scientific, is a coherent unified category. One way of examining the issue is to locate some invariant notion of interpretation governing each of the putative cultural objects. A somewhat detailed ‘anthropological’ study pursued in the ninth chapter (Varieties of Interpretation) across rituals, poetry, painting, and music suggests that even the notion of interpretation radically varies as the objects vary. So, for example, we cannot say without equivocation that cultural objects have a distinctive aspect in that they admit of both singular and plural interpretations.
     The perspectives that govern interpretations come in a variety of forms: plurality of traditions, bounds of space and time, eras and epochs, textuality and interpretations, multiplicity of languages, gestalt properties, and simply differences of irreconcilable opinion, often assuming the form of class-war. None of these are seen in science, say, in theoretical physics. No doubt, there are scientific disputes, but that is a different matter altogether. Beyond this general observation of open-ended plurality, human inquiry is too diffused an undertaking to lend itself to definite categories.
  Yet, we can locate on examination that there are tangible distinctions between forms of inquiry, even if they blend into one another to mask their identity. For example, we could make some sense of the distinction between the scientific and the philosophical modes as above even if philosophical inquiry sometimes takes a scientific form up to a point. Similarly, there is a perceived sense of affinity between philosophy and literature as an impressive body of ‘converging’ literature testifies. Focusing on the non-converging literature, the tenth chapter (Literature and Common Life) takes up one of the leading issues for this collection of chapters: where does common life get its enrichment from in the general absence of scientific reflection? The answer projected in the chapter appeals to the notion of a text. An author’s view from somewhere enshrined in a text—Platonic or Shakespearean—enables the cognitive agent to expand her horizons and transcend her locality.
   The phenomenon of locality and its appeal to textuality is perhaps most directly illustrated in the case of religions. The eleventh chapter (Religion and Mass Culture) raises the problem that, if textuality of religions is understood narrowly in terms of their master-texts, then it will follow that textuality, instead of enhancing the rationality of the cognitive agent, in fact impedes it. And there is no doubt, as documented in the chapter with a particular political scenario in contemporary India, religions can play massively regressive roles. To resolve the dilemma, it is suggested that we need to broaden the notion of textuality to include the complex variety of religious practices that accompany the master-texts; in fact, sometimes there is considerable cognitive separation between the two. So, it is possible for regressive forces to propagate hate by securing allegiance of people in terms of meaningful religious practices.

   Given the variety, richness, and autonomy of forms of human inquiry, it is difficult—perhaps even morally questionable—to prioritize a specific form of knowledge. In any case, as we saw, even what is taken to be the pinnacle of human inquiry, namely, formal science, has only limited role in human life. In this essentially pluralistic conception of human knowledge, the final chapter (Education for the Species) raises the issue of the value of this edifice of human knowledge. Sketching the grim scenario for the survival of the human species, it is argued that much of the damage can be traced to the adoption of highly prioritized knowledge-systems ensuing from elite high-cultures. In contrast, the marginalized knowledge-systems of the indigenous people across the world offer a salient perspective for saving the planet. The salience of indigenous knowledge entails a large-scale rejection of elite knowledge-systems. If skepticism is viewed as a state of mind that rejects dominating knowledge-systems, humans need to adopt probably the most extreme form of skepticism, if the species is to survive.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-4

Introduction (Continued)

The chapters
Each chapter in this volume is accompanied by a substantial abstract that lays out the theme of the chapter. What I plan to do now is to give some idea of the family of concerns that link these chapters in a variety of ways. As noted, the starting point of this exercise is the idea of science. When we face the entirety of human inquiry in its kaleidoscopic state, we need some categories to describe the spectacle. The idea of science seems to offer that handle. Modern science represented a very classical conception of human knowledge as an objective quest for the real properties of the world. With its grand mathematical architectonic, physics was able to develop tools of investigation that unearthed deeply hidden features of the universe. But its highly esoteric form of discourse and extremely theory-internal conception of the world makes physics unavailable to the general cognitive agent, including the physicist outside his specialist forum. With the advent of modern science then it looks as if humans engage in two basic forms of inquiry: let us call them scientific and cultural, respectively. As we will see in the chapters that follow, the labels themselves are of less value than details about the underlying forms.
  In the scientific mode, human inquiry claims knowledge of reality: the knowledge constitutes the truth-claims of science, and the reality constitutes the joints of nature so postulated. The discourse is assumed to be absolute and objective. The truth-claim no doubt is a human action, but the truth—such as, the earth is round—is independent of any agent, community, tradition, textual and social context; in other words, truth lays bare the world as it is. It is commonly believed that the scientific conception of the world is objective in the sense that it does not have a (preferred) point of view; Thomas Nagel (1986) called it the view from nowhere.
    In contrast, much of our lives includes a subjective point of view, the point of view of the human agent; these may be thought of as views from somewhere. As Nagel (1986) and Davidson (1991) pointed out, the two views need to be reconciled in order for us to lead a meaningful life including social and political lives. Nagel then goes on to show how the reconciliation is to be achieved to address a range of classical philosophical problems, such as the mind-body problem. Speaking roughly, the distinction between view from nowhere and view from somewhere is one way of formulating the distinction between the scientific and the cultural.
  My interests are markedly different from the suggested distinction. I think there is another distinction between the scientific and the cultural which is related to, but not sufficiently captured by the subjective-objective distinction. As noted, both the subjective and the objective perspectives are needed to reach human thought and action (Davidson explicitly adds the inter-subjective perspective to the other two); human thought is the result of a reconciliation of these things in any case. I think a scientific-cultural distinction arises even after such reconciliation is reached. The first two chapters in this volume discuss the issue.
   The starting point is the conception of knowledge. In the first chapter (Human Reality), it is shown how the concepts of knowledge, truth and reality are intimately related; if a conception of mind-independent reality is unavailable, so are the concepts of knowledge and truth. The problem is that human knowledge and, therefore, the conception of reality are necessarily products of how humans are designed; if humans were designed, say, as bats, the conception of the world would have been very different. So if the notion of objectivity is understood in terms of a mind-independent reality, then that notion appears to be problematic, if not downright incoherent. There is much room for skepticism then regarding realist claims. Within the design though, it is striking that the human mind can sometimes detect formal/mathematical regularity in the external world. The phenomenon is poorly understood but its shining existence cannot be denied. Perhaps it is possible to recover some version of the notions of knowledge, truth and reality around this phenomenon. I discuss the possibility with more constructive details in the second chapter.
   However, the formal mode of inquiry is rarely available in the vast stretch of human cognitive life. This suggests a broad distinction between forms of inquiry regarding the presence and absence of the formal mode, which amounts roughly to the distinction between the scientific and the cultural. It could be that the world and the knowledge of it are reached in very different reflective terms between the two forms of inquiry. In that sense the world lost in our analytic pursuit may be regained in our poetic form of inquiry in which the world is grasped by immersing ourselves in it. The elusive world, that we are unable to discover except in rare cases by looking at it from the outside, is cheerfully embraced as a lived world from the inside.

  The second chapter (Science and the Mind) focuses on the historical fact that the scientific mode is a great human achievement, but it works in very restricted domains of simple systems. That’s the price we pay for our penchant for objectivity. Genuine scientific understanding is reached primarily through the formal mode—the Galilean style—which is available only for very simple systems. The chapter points out that the arts also sometimes search for formal/minimalist conception of aspects of the world, but the method of search is distinct, resulting in a vastly different form of inquiry. It is reasonable to expect then that a genuine science of the mind is also likely to be restricted only to those aspects of the mind where the formal mode is available. Human language is perhaps the most promising example of such an aspect of the mind. There are serious limits to the inquiry even there, as the next two chapters suggest. 

(To be continued)

Friday, 21 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-3

Introduction (Contd.)

Where does the rest of the meaning come from to enrich human cognition? Needless to say, ever more sophisticated investigations on the nature of human language are under way to expand the scope of linguistic theory and to address the doubts just raised (Hinzen and Sheehan 2013). Yet, as argued in The Primacy of Grammar, it is not evident if any significant notion of theory applies beyond grammatical investigations. As far as genuinely scientific studies on language go, there is grammatical theory stuck at LF, and there is philately.
  Given the predominance of language in human cognitive architecture, the restriction just sketched seems to be the case for much cognitive investigation as well where language is intimately involved: in the study of concepts and reasoning for example. For the rest of the cognitive studies detached from language, the scene seems to be worse since there is no sign of ‘physics’ at all; it is mostly just fancy organization of behavioral data. Thus there is much room for wide-ranging skepticism about the scope of the cognitive sciences. The Homeric struggle seemed to extend far beyond language; it threatened to cover the architecture of human cognition itself. It seemed that not only that the botanist plays a crucial role in human inquiry, there are areas of deep human concern to which even the botanist does not have access. Yet humans tread those areas with impressive cognitive confidence as they lead their common lives.
    There seems to be three options in hand with respect to how we respond to the skeptic. First, one could keep digging at the vast phenomenon of human cognition with whatever scientific tool is in hand; this is what cognitive scientists and philosophers are doing in any case. Some of my own continuing work falls under this option, as noted; we may ask, for instance, if language and music share the same grammatical structure. Second, one could embrace wholesale skepticism about science, refuse to make any formal-theoretical move, and turn philosophical problems into ‘literary’ activities: call it post-structuralism. Third, one uses skepticism as a strategy to progressively expand the notion of human inquiry; in other words, by showing the limitations of one form of inquiry one draws attention to the significance of some other forms. In effect, we may view alternative forms of inquiry as reinforcing—rather than negating—each other: call it, if you like, reflective pluralism.
   I don’t think that the chapters that follow mark any definite choice between these broad options, for reasons—including moral and political ones—that emerge as we proceed. Basically, the inclination is to leave things as they are. However, it will not be implausible to detect a sympathy for the first and the third options, and an attempt to come to terms with their ‘incommensurability.’ There is also a tendency to ignore the second option largely because holding it along with the other two options precipitates flat inconsistency; hence, I have ignored the vast literature—Roland Barthes, Michael Foucault, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, and others—that propagates the second option. Moreover, the second option grants salience to just one form of inquiry, namely, the literary one; after spending a life in analytic philosophy and in admiration of physics, one develops a visceral discomfort with any proclamation that fails to uphold their value. But the association with the formal does not prevent me to shift to the literary mode whenever needed.
   In any case, I lack the enthusiasm to argue these choices here because I have very little interest in metatheory. I rather prefer Wittgenstein’s idea of simply describing the modes of human inquiry—‘forms of life,’ as he would say—as they shore up when we look for them within the vicinity of our own agency. In any case, notwithstanding the option one recommends, there is the need to furnish something of a perspective for the phenomenon that humans have reflective resources to lead cognitively meaningful lives. What are those resources? Is there an account of human cognitive agency as a whole?
     These chapters started emerging one after another as a variety of very specific questions about the form and limits of human inquiry began to form in mind. For example, at one point in human history it was thought that modern science, especially theoretical physics, is the paradigm of human inquiry. Where does this form of inquiry significantly apply? Are there limits on its claims of truth and objectivity? How much of the vast canvas of human experience does it cover? Where do other forms of inquiry, such as philosophy, literature, religion, and the arts, attain their salience?
     With the emergence of scientific study of the human mind itself, these critical questions have taken a more intriguing form, as noted. Can human inquiry investigate its own nature? Can the scientific theory of language explain the richness of human expression? Can a science of the mind account for human experience? These probing questions on the scientific enterprise are usually addressed from the outside, as it were, by humanists, philosophers of science, sociologists of knowledge, and critical theorists. In these chapters, they are examined from the inside by a philosopher whose primary academic work concerns the study of the human linguistic mind. In that sense, the skeptical inquiry turns on itself.

(To be continued)

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-2

Introduction (continued)

 From a skeptical point of view
So, what explains the diffused character of these chapters? I think the answer lies in the way in which my own intellectual interests unfolded. Having made a decision to shift, early in my career, from the beautiful abstractions of mathematical physics to the more existential concerns of philosophy, I settled down to a range of exciting new developments in analytic philosophy in the post-Wittgensteinian era. The work of fine philosophers like John Austin, Peter Strawson, Willard Quine, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Michael Dummett, and other stalwarts of late 20th century analytic philosophy, promised a healthy mix of rigorous, often formal, inquiry with what Hilary Putnam called ‘the whole hurly-burly of human actions’ (cited in Nussbaum 2016). Philosophers such as Peter Strawson (1992) and others have often suggested that philosophy attempts to produce a systematic account of the general conceptual apparatus of which our daily practices display a tacit and unconscious mastery.
    But the subtle, abstract, and yet unifying framework of physics lingered in the mind. This led to a variety of dissatisfaction with analytic philosophy, especially in the study of language. We need to step back a little to see why. In the first half of the 20th century, great philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Alfred Ayer and others took what Richard Rorty (1967) called the linguistic turn. Tracing it to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Alberto Coffa (1991) called this mode of doing philosophy the semantic tradition. Within this broad tradition, each of the authors cited in the preceding paragraph—Austin, Quine, etc.—belonged primarily to the broad discipline of philosophy of language. The study of language thus formed a central part of the analytic effort. As with most students of analytic philosophy in those days, I was attracted to the study of language both for the intricate formal character of human language, and its ubiquitous role in human life.
    Linguistic philosophy promised a rigorous, scientific approach of its own on classical philosophical topics such as realism, knowledge, belief, even consciousness. For example, Willard Quine (1953) argued that for something to exist it has to be the value of a bound variable in a true theory; Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) suggested that to understand consciousness is to understand the meaning of the first-person sentence I am in pain; Bertrand Russell (1919) held that beliefs such as <Ramanuj is wise> are propositional attitudes. I will have much more to say on these things in the chapters that follow.
    Since linguistic philosophy proposed to examine classical issues by viewing them as ‘semantic’ problems—that is, in terms of the structure and function of language—it is reasonable to expect that this philosophy will also furnish a formally satisfying account of language itself from which the solution to philosophical problems maybe rigorously derived. However, linguistic philosophy lacked a genuinely theoretical understanding of the immense richness of human language. This is what a mind initially trained in physics sorely missed. This philosophy did make formal proposals occasionally, such as Russell’s famous theory of descriptions (Russell 1905), to address philosophical problems. But the formal tools were borrowed from the discipline of symbolic logic which is not only a poor substitute for human language; its character is parasitic on human language.   
     In any case, even with the tools of formal logic, human language resisted any grand formal theory for addressing philosophical problems, as Peter Strawson (1950) pointed out in his stringent criticism of Russell’s theory of descriptions: ordinary language, Strawson declared, has no logic. ‘Ordinary language’ philosophers thus focused on detailed, taxonomic properties of language in the style of a botanist, as John Austin (1962) suggested, rather than that of a physicist. The study of language fostered what Strawson (1971) called a Homeric struggle between ‘formal-semantic’ and ‘communication-intention’ theorists of language. My impression is that the scene in analytic philosophy hasn’t improved since even if no one openly makes claims for either ‘ideal language’ or ‘ordinary language.’ At that stage, it was too early for me to admire the value of this uncertainty in philosophical inquiry.
  While analytic philosophy was going through this apparent absence of direction, interesting developments took place elsewhere. I expressed my disenchantment with the state of linguistic philosophy in my doctoral thesis, and turned to linguistics and cognitive science to see if there was a ‘physics’ of human language and mind. Two related developments promised what I was looking for: exciting proposals in theoretical linguistics by Noam Chomsky, and the formulation of a computational theory of mind by Alan Turing. Both strands of research, and much else besides, had become established academic pursuits by the time I completed my doctoral thesis. As I continued with my exploration of the new science of the mind, certain interesting ideas and results did appear on the table in due course which I put together in some papers and monographs culminating in the Primacy of Grammar (2010). That form of work continues elsewhere.

    However, throughout my engagement with the new science of the mind, I was beginning to realize that the ideas that interested me there covered very restricted and abstract domains of human cognition such that the intellectual salience of much of the rest of the new science could be questioned. For example, the formal resources of linguistic theory no doubt explained some intriguing facts about how sound is connected to what may be called the internal significance of a structure, called Logical Form (LF) in the technical literature. However, it is also clear that the theory does not have either the resources or the desire to explain what may ordinarily be viewed as the meaning of a sentence. 

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry_I


Human beings are endowed with cognitive agency. Our grasp of the world, and of ourselves, is not merely a reflexive response to external stimuli, it is a reflective product of human inquiry, often structured in imagination. What are the forms of inquiry available to humans to lead a significant life? How are these forms related to each other? The twelve exploratory chapters of varying length collected in this volume examine forms and limits of human inquiry from a variety of directions.

Most of these directions emanate from classical philosophical investigations on human knowledge. Since the nature of human inquiry is the general theme, it is not surprising that the chapters cover a wide range of familiar philosophical topics: the nature of reality, scientific realism; concepts of truth, knowledge, belief, consciousness; character of mind, language, grammar, meaning; literature and philosophy; nature of music, religious discourse; knowledge and human destiny, and others. Although I have called them ‘Chapters’, it is not unreasonable to view the volume as a collection of essays. 

These pieces were written in a discontinuous fashion over a number of years for very different occasions and audiences, and at varying, often conflicting, reflective moments. Strictly speaking, their spatial assembly here does not really amount to a sustained fully articulated monograph; significant silences insulate the individual write-ups from each other. Given the range and complexity of the listed topics, I do not think there could be a single substantive monograph that covers them all. In any case, I am not concerned here either with history of philosophy or with philosophical anthropology, even though I end up doing these things on occasion to set the scene. My intention is not to report on the current state of these topics. They are discussed because they necessarily infiltrate the mind when you think about the idea of being human.

Yet, this is not just a compilation of assorted papers to mark the end of a career. If a metaphor is needed to cover the collation, one could say, in celebrated terms, that they form a ‘family’ as their resemblances ‘criss-cross and overlap’. I think it is better to view the pieces as forming a group of proximate islands in the same stretch of the sea; the image of an island seems appropriate because each chapter stands on its own without directly depending on the others. However, I have used the method of cross-reference frequently to aid the memory, sharpen a point, or to construct a bridge. I will try to describe the composite picture shortly.

Individually too, the pieces are more like free-flowing essays than formally structured papers meant for disciplinary journals. I am aware that centuries of the most extensive reflection and scholarship across many fields of inquiry have nourished each of the topics listed above. Especially in the last century almost all of these topics have attained formidable technical character. Apart from developing theoretical vocabulary of their own, philosophers have explored these issues with insights from mathematical logic, theoretical linguistics, computer science, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and theoretical physics. As a result, it is now expected that these otherwise large and elusive issues are discussed in terms of the latest technical proposal; fair enough, that is how academic papers are written.

The pieces assembled here generally do not follow that trajectory. Although they do cover familiar philosophical topics like knowledge, truth, realism, belief, meaning, interpretation, and the like, that are often discussed in professional platforms, these topics carry much value beyond the closely guarded canons of the academia. After all, as the legend goes, many of these topics started their career on ancient streets or under banyan trees; arguably, unlike other branches of inquiry, they retain the memory of those plebeian assemblies. These chapters attempt to convey a sense of relaxed conversation in a disarming voice to reach audiences outside professional meetings of philosophers. As a result they sometimes ignore, even disobey, the formal tone and attire of academic discourse.

However, these are not ‘popular’ pieces by any means. After a life in professional philosophy, often guided by inputs from the adjacent sciences, it is by now intellectually impossible to entirely avoid the formal tone and at least some of the demanding literature that informs it. In that slightly uncertain sense, these are reflective efforts that are seeking a zone of comfort somewhere between technical journals and literary supplements, but never aiming for a talk-show. As a result, in many cases, they start out with the usual preparations of the professional philosopher, but they seldom stay on course to the end; in a variety of ways, the discussion moves away from familiar abstract channels to more direct arenas of common life. It is not for me to judge whether the effort had been successful, but I hope they do convey some sense of honesty of purpose because, in most cases, the discourse was not deliberately designed.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

From the sceptical point of view

Announcing the printing of a new book titled


To be published by

Human beings are endowed with cognitive agency. Our grasp of the world, and of ourselves, are not merely responses to external stimuli, they are reflective products of human inquiry. The twelve exploratory essays collected in this volume examine forms and limits of human inquiry from a largely sceptical point of view.

At one point in human history it was thought that modern science, especially theoretical physics, is the paradigm of human inquiry. Where does this form of inquiry significantly apply? Are there limits on its claims of truth and objectivity? How much of the vast canvas of human experience does it cover? Where do other forms of inquiry, such as philosophy, religion, and the arts, attain their salience?

With the emergence of scientific study of the human mind itself, these critical questions have taken a more intriguing form in recent decades. Can human inquiry investigate its own nature? Can the scientific theory of language explain the richness of human expression? Can a science of the mind account for human experience?

These probing questions on the scientific enterprise are usually addressed from the outside, as it were, by humanists and critical theorists. In these essays, they are examined from the inside by a philosopher whose primary academic work concerns the study of the human linguistic mind. In that sense, the sceptical inquiry turns on itself.

The twelve essays carve the route from the scientific mode to the literary and artistic modes through a survey of the forms of human inquiry. The book will engage the attention of philosophers, including philosophers of science, literary theorists, cultural studies, and history and sociology of human knowledge.

Endorsements

With remarkable range and depth, these tantalizing essays explore scientific and cultural forms of inquiry, leading concerns of Indian and western philosophy (and indigenous thought as well), the role of the cognitive agent in description and ascription – concepts that are examined in depth -- and other topics that have inspired reflection on the world and ourselves for ages.  At each point, there are instructive and challenging new perspectives and insights.  A notable achievement, and a welcome gift to the inquiring mind.
Noam Chomsky, Emeritus Institute Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nirmalangshu Mukherji's selection of essays in this book are reflections of a fine scholar made over a very worthy career of research and teaching in Philosophy and Linguistics in India for the last many decades. Their range is wide —science, philosophy, literature, linguistics, music, religion, and everyday experience—and they are at once rigorous and accessible. They reflect a deep commitment to scientific objectivity, even as they are wise in their understanding of the limits of science’s reach into the domain of what he calls ‘common life’. They will be a source of much pleasure and instruction and insight to the serious reader.
Akeel Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

A collection of essays on classical topics -- knowledge, truth, realism, belief, meaning, interpretation – by a critical and innovative mind with an atypical intellectual profile. Mukherji is nourished by analytic philosophy and theoretical linguistics, but his interests go well beyond narrow academic concerns. His writings reflect the breadth of his aspirations and should appeal to the general public as well as to the experts.
Francois Recanati, Director, Institut Jean Nicod and Senior Fellow, CNRS, Paris.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part V

[We conclude by suggesting that incorporation of indigenous knowledge-systems in the mainstream is one urgent measure to save the species and the planet]

Conclusion
It seems plausible to hold, then, that the most progressive, enlightened forms of thinking on education fail to offer a sustainable perspective on the survival of the species. In some grim historical sense, the prospects seem irreversible because the so-called enlightened conception of knowledge, which is primarily responsible for bringing the species to the brink of extinction, is uncritically assumed to be the only one we have. In fact, liberal education, with its species-terminating edifice of knowledge, is often ascribed absolute value, since any alternative form of education is viewed as either inconceivable or politically incorrect.
What is missed in these universalist proclamations in favour of liberal education is that an entire range of indigenous knowledge systems have existed simultaneously, but in almost total isolation from the modernist liberal knowledge systems. These are not ‘primitive’ or ‘infantile’ systems of knowledge requiring further stages of development. These systems are current ‘adult’ systems of knowledge with their own high culture that have been sustained in favourable environmental niches for thousands of years. If liberal education can claim its historical validity by referring back to the Vedas, Sutras, Euclid and Plato, so do the indigenous systems, except that their classical heritage has remained unnamed in the absence of global propaganda. These systems define the alternative forms of what it is to be human as a species. The only problem is that these systems, with their construction of God of Niyamgiri and reverence for rivers, are viewed as inconsistent with the modernist outlook. But, that certainly is a problem for the modernist, not the Dongria Kondhs.
In other words, a real solution to the issue of survival requires that humans learn to progressively forget—or, at least, engage in severe criticism of—the knowledge systems currently advanced in the most dominating centres of learning. If indigenous knowledge systems, currently resisting extraction of hydrocarbons and bauxite from forests, are our primary route for survival, every bit of knowledge beyond indigenous knowledge must be subjected to serious critique for their relevance.
I am aware of the possible inconsistency in what I am proposing. While the subliminal suggestion is to defray action on all forms of so-called modernist high-culture, are we not led into this forlorn conclusion precisely by dint of the wonderful scientific work conducted by Mayr and his colleagues at Harvard, which has an annual budget of several billion dollars? So, is it not imperative that solutions to the dangers posed by the culture of enlightenment are to be found within enlightenment itself? Obviously, there cannot be an immediately satisfying answer to this question either way. So, let me ask a series of rhetorical questions to conclude the discussion.
Can we not view the otherwise wonderful results from Harvard as a reductio to the effect that this knowledge need not be pursued anymore? Elizabeth Kolbert has remarked with some irony that let us not ask the scientific question of when the human species might become extinct, because we might be extinct before we reach a definite scientific answer (Drake 2015). Sensible people have started advocating the disarming of the planet. Does that not amount to the demand that the knowledge systems that go into the construction of weaponry—from pistols to hydrogen bombs—be deliberately set aside? I am told that the Japanese monarchs refused to introduce guns in their army for centuries even though the Europeans have been trying hard to sell the lucrative technology. The reason was, in a battle with swords, you have to face another human being from close quarters; so you are compelled to confront the moral issue of killing a human being. In a gun-battle from a distance, you do not face that moral choice.
  Why should that argument not extend to the knowledge of making cars and aeroplanes, since these technologies require extraction of bauxite from revered mountains? Once we get the feel of the mess into which modern living has pushed the planet, why should we stop at cars and aeroplanes? Why not computers, mobile phones, skyscrapers, libraries, orchestras, art museums, cities and asphalt roads? The children of the gods of Niyamgiri lived without them happily for thousands of years. Exactly what argument do we have for not emulating their lives in full?

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part IV

[In this section, we discuss the radical views on education of two non-Western thinkers Rabindranath Tagore and Paulo Freire to see if their projects meets the demand for incorporating indigenous knowledge]

Education for fullness
Tagore was deeply troubled by the extreme elitism of the British-enforced education system that catered only to the children of the privileged. As is well known, he was also deeply critical of the kind of education that was imparted, the rote learning that Freire later identified as the ‘banking’ method. Instead, Tagore advocated an enlightened and elaborate version of education for fullness: sarbangin shiksha. This included not just the education of the intellect, combining the most universal aspects of Western and Eastern high culture, but also the education of feeling for the other that extended to feeling for nature and cosmos. In this sense, he criticised the one-sidedness of an education that only imparted bookish knowledge in a narrow pragmatic sense. His conception of education did not reject the ideals of Western enlightenment, but sought to embed it in a wider conception of learning that, he thought, embraced the whole human (Mukherjee 2013).
   There is no convincing evidence that the knowledge systems for ‘fullness’ that constituted Tagore’s conception of sarbangin shiksha included the knowledge systems of the unlettered even in its margins. So, his lament about the absence of the poor from the field of education may be viewed as a ‘humanitarian’ lament, not really a ‘humanistic’ one, to use a distinction suggested by Freire and to which I return.
In fact, there is evidence that Tagore viewed the poor and the marginalised as ignorant, dull and voiceless, to whom language needs to be imparted, and hope needs to be aroused in those broken hearts. And, the knowledge that is supposed to enlighten the poor is the highculture knowledge already imparted to the elite. Needless to say, this task of pulling the poor out of their misery through sarbangin shiksha required novel educational practices such as teaching in the mother tongue, using local flora and fauna as examples, active agency of the learner, the tapovana model of shunning bounded classrooms and holding learning sessions in the open air, etc. Yet, the knowledge that was so imparted consisted of the products of the elite high-culture, from the upanishads to modern science, via literature, art and sophisticated musical forms.
I think the point about the ultimately elitist character of Tagore’s otherwise enlightened conception of education can be strengthened with an example of the novel educational practice followed in Tagore’s school. I could not locate any official document for this, but I can recount this curious practice from my own experience as a student in Tagore’s school at Santiniketan. Every afternoon, children from Patha Bhavana were transported in the university bus in batches to Silpa Sadana at the rural setting of Sriniketan, the location for rural education and reconstruction. There, we sat down on the floor to learn about woodcraft, papier mâché, basket weaving, lac work, etc, from the ill-clad and impoverished, but highly skilled village artisans. During that period of active hands-on learning, some of the rural folk were our teachers. Our education, thus, included some of the knowledge systems of the unlettered, and a reversal of class roles. No wonder this novel education practice was soon abandoned due to logistical reasons.
Yet, the point remains that the appreciation and adoption of rural culture was restricted to the ‘crafts’ of a folk nature. Elite, high culture still formed the central ingredient for the development of sensitive intellect. Similarly, farmers are sometimes consulted about various agricultural practices such as variety of seeds, condition of soil, multiple cropping, organic fertilisers, etc. This is the traditional domain of the unlettered where knowledge is accumulated through sheer practice over centuries. Beyond this, rural culture (not to mention tribal culture)—except ‘folk art’—is not ascribed any enlightenment value. The tribals, the indigenous people, are not even in view. They are curiosities hiding in hills and forests.
Humanistic education
Several decades later, Paulo Freire, in his classic work, Pedagogy of theOppressed (1970/2005), addressed the issue of resistance to the ideologies and institutions of the elite more directly. The task for education, he felt, was to reverse the process of dehumanisation in which the oppressed found themselves:
The struggle for humanisation, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons ... is possible only because dehumanisation although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed (Freire 2005, 44).
Following George Lukacs, Freire elaborates that a revolutionary educational practice aims to ‘explain to the masses their own action,’ to clarify and illuminate that action, both regarding its relationship to the objective facts by which it was prompted, and regarding its purposes (53). The more the people unveil this challenging reality, which is to be the object of their transforming action, the more critically they enter that reality. In this way they are ‘consciously activating the subsequent development of their experiences’ (53). Freire insists this form of education to be essentially pre-revolutionary, such that the oppressed can proceed to a revolutionary overthrow of the unjust order. Freire, thus, goes beyond Tagore to view education not only as a humanitarian mode to include the oppressed, but as one which triggers humanisation of the oppressed by enabling them to erect the other side of the barricade. Let us call this mode of education the proletarian mode.
It is unclear if the envisaged overthrow of the unjust order will in fact enhance the prospects for the species as a whole. The humanised education achieved through the struggle of the working masses will no doubt usher in an era of proletarian freedom. But, will it ensure survival for all? The answer will depend on the content of the proletarian mode, the knowledge systems so advocated. Here, the prospects do not appear to be as revolutionary as the emancipation of a section of people.
There is little evidence that pre-revolutionary education practices among the masses, undertaken by revolutionary forces, address the issue raised here. In his writings, Freire makes frequent references to politico-educational work of Mao during the pre-revolutionary phase. Following these examples and their implementation during, say, the struggles in Yan’an and Vietnam, certain forms of educational practices have emerged. For example, following lessons from Vietnam, Maoists in India have organised Young Communist Mobile Schools (or, Basic Communist Training Schools), which host select groups of 25–30 tribal children in the age group of 12–15 years.
These children receive intensive training for six months in a curriculum consisting of basic concepts of Marxism–Leninism–Maoism, Hindi and English, mathematics, social science, different types of weapons, computers, etc (recall their age group). Needless to say, lessons are conducted in Gondi, and local song and dance forms are used to motivate the children. Beyond this, there is no evidence that the ancient knowledge systems of the tribals form any significant part of the curriculum, even though the pupils concerned consist entirely of tribal children. In fact, much of the curriculum, including lessons in modern science go directly against the foundations of tribal culture; especially, weapons training involving not bows and arrows, but automatic rifles, light machine guns, high-powered explosive devices, and the like (Mukherji 2012). While the children in mainstream India sit through modernist curriculum under the aegis of not-so-subtle capitalist propaganda, tribal children sit through roughly the same curriculum, even if they have been asked to wear Maoist lenses. Education is imparted in the proletarian mode, not in the indigenous mode. It is difficult to dispel the impression that modernist educational thinking has deeply penetrated even the most revolutionary minds.


(To be concluded)

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part III

[In this section we report on indigenous resistance to plunder of the planet. The resistance includes natives in Canada resisting extraction of shale gas, and adivasis in Niyamgiri opposing mining of aluminium. It appears to be a conflict between two systems of knowledge]

Indigenous resistance
Most importantly, for our purposes, Chomsky also sketched an alternative to these entrenched ideologies by applauding the resistance against these policies raised by the indigenous people congregating at the margins of Canada’s much-flaunted multicultural society. ‘It is pretty ironic,’ Chomsky remarked, ‘that the so-called “least advanced” people are the ones taking the lead in trying to protect all of us, while the richest and most powerful among us are the ones who are trying to drive the society to destruction’ (Cited in Lukacs 2013).
The general lesson is hard to miss. Notice the expression ‘all of us.’ The resistance by the indigenous people to the extraction of hydrocarbons not only saves the environmental niche of these people in New Brunswick and Alberta, it is protecting all of us, the species. In contrast, the rational choices enforced by the ideologies and the institutions controlled by the rich and the powerful are driving the human race towards extinction. It is, thus, an issue about the salient authorship of knowledge.
The issue of knowledge emerged vividly nearer home in the jungles surrounding the Niyamgiri hills in the state of Odisha. These hills contain about 1.8 billion tonnes of high-grade bauxite, the source for aluminium, which a mining giant—euphemistically called Vedanta—wants to extract to feed into giant factories built on this land. As they were pushed out of the plains by the thrust of mainstream civilisation, the local poor, mostly tribals, had lived on this hilly land for thousands of years. After years of resistance by them—and much manipulation and show of muscle by the state, financed by the mining oligarchy—the government was compelled to organise a referendum for 12 carefully-selected villages when the fate of hundreds of villages was involved (Kothari 2015; Vanaja 2014).
As one of many moving studies reports (Bera 2013), using the democratic and peaceful resource of their own panchayats—units of local self-government—village after village gathered en masse amid heavy security cover of central paramilitary and state forces. Ignoring the guns and bayonets, ‘unlettered’ forest dwellers—Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh tribals, and Gouda and Harijan non-tribals—spoke of a religion embedded in the hill’s pristine ecology. They told the district judge, appointed observer to the meetings by the apex court, that mining will destroy their god and their source of sustenance:
Over 100 perennial streams, fruit trees such as jackfruit and mangoes, spices like turmeric and ginger, wild roots, tubers and mushroom; apart from the land for shift and burn cultivation—dongar—where they grow an enviable mix of native millets, pulses and oil seeds (Bera 2013).
Having said this, each village unanimously rejected the Vedanta project. Niyamgiri hills survived. For now. Mark the word unlettered, as was used by the reporter. The people themselves ratified this perspective of illiteracy. Tunguru Majhi, a Kutia Kondh tribal, declared at the Kunakadu palli village council meeting,
We will die like Birsa Munda and Rindo Majhi [both Munda and Majhi led tribal uprisings against the British] if you don’t give up now. We are a murkhya jati [illiterate people] who will never listen to you (Bera 2013).
This illiteracy, the absence of letters, the stupidity of the ancient belief in a caring and protecting god of the hills, might just provide the answer to the question of whether the species will survive after all.

Questioning liberal pedagogy

Recall that when he mentioned the resistance by the indigenous people of Canada, Chomsky used the expression ‘so-called “least advanced” people’ (Lukacs 2013). He is not only referring to their action of resistance, but pointing at their intellectual achievement, without which the action of resistance would not have followed. In contrast, the ‘rational decisions’ reached by formidable intellectuals serving the rich and the powerful lead the species to the verge of extinction. The contest is, therefore, between two opposing systems of knowledge in two different intellectual traditions.
Moreover, Chomsky’s contrast between the two traditions implies that, in a crucial historical sense, elite intellectual traditions have failed the species, while the indigenous traditions, in almost total isolation from the elites, opens the opportunity for the continued survival of the species. In the same historical sense then, survival of the species now depends on incorporating marginalised indigenous systems of knowledge into the mainstream. At the same time, there is a need to severely critique and progressively replace entrenched aspects of elite intellectual traditions, which have ruled the world for at least the last few hundred years in the garb of liberal pedagogy.
What does this scenario mean for education policy? What does it mean exactly to prioritise and adopt the knowledge systems of the murkhya to save the species and the planet? In the limited space available to me here, I will focus on the prospect of incorporating indigenous knowledge in the mainstream education policy. In the process, I will be able to touch barely upon the related, but wider issue of dispensing with much of the current liberal curriculum that generates the mindset for plundering the planet.

Ever since liberal education became the agenda at the turn of the last century, education of the poor and the marginalised has concerned a range of progressive thinkers. I will briefly touch upon two of them—Rabindranath Tagore and Paulo Freire—to suggest why these responses to the issue of the survival of the species are inadequate. There are two reasons why I wish to focus on these authors. First, given the historical problems of modernity, there is already growing awareness that Western liberal education has not lived up to its promise of enlightenment, as noted above. In that context, it is of much interest that both Tagore and Freire are non-Western critics of Western elitism and are well-known for their views on education policy. Second, both direct their attention to the education of the marginalised as a form of universal welfare. How do their apparently egalitarian liberal views fare with respect to the issue of indigenous knowledge?

(To be continued)

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part II

[In this section, we explain that the man-made extinction of the species is an outcome of primarily modernist thinking and high-culture which is now shared by the elites globally]
Ideology and hegemony
For his book Hegemony or Survival, Chomsky used the subtitle America’s Quest for Global Dominance, suggesting that the prospect of human survival depends primarily on how humanity responds to the hegemony of the United States (US). No doubt, with its absolute military control over the planet and the space around it, and its nuclear hardware capable of vaporising much of the planetary system, the US has represented the peak of the 'cold and calculated savagery’ with which humans have proceeded to destroy themselves. Moreover, using its military control, the US has thwarted almost every effort to get the planet on some track of recovery. For example, in the last few decades, it has not only ignored the Geneva Convention on warfare and the United Nations (UN) resolutions on terrorism, it has walked out of the Kyoto Protocol on the environment, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, and the convention on biological warfare among others. There is some basis, then, for viewing US hegemony as a principal agent for the imminent extinction of the species.
However, the US has not been alone. The ideology that governs US hegemony over the planet had precedents throughout the history of the Western world. As Chomsky (2005, x) notes, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, rated to be one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century by many scholars, viewed Nazi Germany as the most ‘metaphysical of nations.’ After constructing the spectre of the Jewish–Bolshevik conspiracy to take over the world, eminent Western intellectuals thought that ‘extreme measures’ were necessary for ‘self-defence.’ ‘As the Nazi storm clouds settled over the country in 1935,’ Chomsky continued, ‘Martin Heidegger depicted Germany as the “most endangered” nation in the world, gripped in the “great pincers” of an onslaught against civilisation itself, led in its crudest form by Russia and America’ (Chomsky 2005, x). According to Heidegger, Germany stood ‘in the center of the Western world,’ and must protect the great heritage of classical Greece from ‘annihilation,’ relying on the ‘new spiritual energies unfolding historically from out of the center.’ Hence, the catastrophic war was needed to protect the ‘great heritage of classical Greece’ (Chomsky 2005: x).
When it was attacked by the Japanese in Pearl Harbour, the US unleashed its own ‘legitimate exercise of self-defence against a vicious enemy’ (Chomsky 2005, xi) with a 1,000-plane daylight raid on defenceless Japanese cities, culminating in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Chomsky notes:
The paroxysm of slaughter and annihilation did not end with the use of weapons that may very well bring the species to a bitter end. We should also not forget that these species-terminating weapons were created by the most brilliant, humane, and highly educated figures of modern civilization, working in isolation, and so entranced by the beauty of the work in which they were engaged that they apparently paid little attention to the consequences (2005, x).
As Chomsky has pointed out, the basic problem is much deeper and historical in character than the immediacy of a current rogue state (Gettys 2014). Thus, even if the current neo-liberal phase represents the ‘extreme end of the traditional US policy spectrum,’ these policies have ‘many precursors, both in US history and among earlier aspirants to global power.’ ‘More ominously,’ Chomsky continued, ‘their decisions may not be irrational within the framework of prevailing ideology and the institutions that embody it’ (2003, 4). This is the crucial point—these are rational decisions taken in a civilizational mode, these are products of the most sophisticated thinking pursued for hundreds of years in great centres of learning. In that sense, there is a direct correlation between the culture of enlightenment and the untimely extinction of the species.
Beyond US hegemony, there is now growing concern that humanity might well be led to a species-terminating global war originating in West Asia. After bitter plunder and strategic warfare conducted by the West for over five decades, this region has now spawned powers, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), that not only have the armed resources for acquiring local state power, but have the determination to achieve global dominance just like Nazi Germany. In fact, their ideologies go beyond that of Nazism to actually seek the end of the world. Graeme Wood (2015) reports that
we can gather that [ISIS] rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
It is instructive to note in this connection that the prospect of species termination is not restricted to avowedly hegemonistic violent states and their ideologies. Thus, Chomsky mentions the apparently benign and peace-loving country, Canada, to understand the real scope of the concerned ideology. Speaking on the energy policies of the Canadian government under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Chomsky observed that
It means taking every drop of hydrocarbon out of the ground, whether it’s shale gas in New Brunswick or tar sands in Alberta and trying to destroy the environment as fast as possible, with barely a question raised about what the world will look like as a result (Cited in Lukacs 2013), such destruction of the environment continues across the world, including in India. And, the destruction of the environment puts immense pressure on available resources such that access to the remaining resources enhances the prospect of catastrophic war.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part I

An earlier version was published some months ago in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). It is reproduced here in parts because the EPW version is difficult to access due to paywall 

In this possibly-terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured, they may well be essential to survival. 
Noam Chomsky


Noam Chomsky’s grimly titled book Hegemony or Survival (2003) opens with some observations of contemporary biologist Ernst Mayr, who is sometimes referred to as ‘the biological giant of the 20th century’ (Foreman 2004, 24). After proposing a very reasonable notion of a species (de Queiroz 2005), Mayr (2001) held that about 50 billion species have appeared on this planet since the origin of life. He estimated that ‘the average life expectancy of a species is about 1,00,000 years’ (Chomsky 2003, 1). Exactly one of these 50 billion species ‘achieved the kind of intelligence needed to establish a civilisation,’ Mayr notes (Chomksy 2003, 1). The civilisation-forming intelligence of this species is the topic for this essay.
From studies on sudden expansion of brain size (Striedter 2004), restructuring of the brain for emergence of language (Crow 2010), and proliferation of tools and other signs of culture, it is now estimated that the modern human species emerged roughly about 1,00,000 years ago (Tattersall 2012). Following Mayr’s statistical rule, then, the species is possibly nearing its end.
Sixth ‘intelligent’ extinction
We may hope to defy Mayr’s doomsday scenario under the impression that the human species, apparently, has remarkable control over its destiny, precisely due to the ‘kind of intelligence’ with which it is endowed. Humans may feel reassured that this kind of intelligence will ultimately devise ways, technological and otherwise, to protect the species beyond its statistical limit. Unfortunately, the hope seems to lack foundations. Mayr’s controversial estimate is not the only clue for his doomsday scenario. He proposed another perspective in which the prospect of premature extinction is in fact enhanced by the human kind of intelligence. It is just that the two scenarios seem to converge on the time left for the species.
Biologists suggest that there are two evolutionary scenarios that lead to the extinction of species. The first form of species extinction is called background extinction. This form of extinction happens due to background factors, such as low density of population, limited dispersal ability, inbreeding, successional loss of habitat, climate change, competition, predation, disease, and the like (Soulè 1996). There is considerable dispute about the life of a species undergoing inevitable background extinction. As noted, Mayr thought that species-life is as low as 1,00,000 years. Others calculate it between 1 million and 5–10 million years.
Biologists also list a second form of extinction—mass extinction—in which more than 50% of all species on earth, at a given point in time, are wiped out simultaneously due to some massive catastrophe. Biologists identify five events in the last half a billion years when such grand-scale extinction happened. The last of these—the Cretaceous—occurred when, 65 million years ago, dinosaurs and many molluscs became extinct, most probably due to the strike of a giant asteroid.
In either case, species become extinct due to what may be viewed as natural reasons that are external to the species. These occur in nature periodically due to circumstances beyond the control of the members of the species. In these cases of natural extinction on a geological scale, nothing much can be done in the long run, even if a variety of ‘intelligence’ and other favourable factors postpone the inevitable in the short run. At the current stage of knowledge, there is no definite prediction that the human species is about to become extinct due to the convergence of natural background factors or some catastrophic event, such as the striking of a giant asteroid.
The prediction, rather, is that, after a lapse of 65 million years, the conditions for another—sixth—mass extinction are rapidly maturing. The human species is most likely to disappear due to phenomena such as nuclear holocaust, massive environmental destruction, global conflict, including biological warfare, asstronomical poverty, irreversible damage to food chains, and maybe even just unavailability of potable water. The extinction of the species will most likely be caused by the suicidal behaviour of the species itself. As Chomsky puts it, we are the asteroid.
The author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014), Elizabeth Kolbert suggests in an interview (Drake 2015) that the factor of environmental degradation due to human recklessness alone has enhanced the rate of species extinction by more than 100 times the normal rate in just the last few hundred years. This is because, Kolbert argues,
We loaded the extinction rate with widespread hunting, we brought in invasive species. We are now changing the climate, very, very rapidly, by geological standards. We are changing the chemistry of all the oceans. We are changing the surface of the planet. We cut down forests, we plant mono-culture agriculture, which is not good for a lot of species. We’re overfishing. (Drake 2015).
The list goes on and on. To emphasise, Kolbert’s picture only includes extinction of other species triggering mass extinction. To this picture, we need to add factors like nuclear holocaust, global war, dislocation of food chains, massive famines, depletion of potable water, and the like, which more directly relate to the extinction of the human species itself.
Significantly, each of these doomsday scenarios is critically linked to the species’ unique endowment of the ‘kind of intelligence needed to establish a civilisation’ (Chomsky 2003, 1). No other species remotely has the ability to change the chemistry of the planet, and pollute much of the potable water on earth, by its own diligent effort in just a few hundred years, not to mention the ability to construct weapons of mass destruction, to which we will return.
As Mayr pointed out, there is no evidence that nature prefers intelligence over stupidity: beetles and bacteria, for example, are vastly more successful than the great apes, not to mention humans, in terms of survival. Looking at humans through this long lens of evolution, it could well be, Chomsky holds, that humans were a kind of ‘biological’ error, using their allotted 1,00,000 years to destroy themselves and much else in the process with ‘cold and calculated savagery’ (2003, 2).
The centrality of the notions of intelligence and stupidity brings the topic of the imminent extinction of the species within the broad domain of education. Hence, the title of this essay.

(To be Continued)

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Chant of the Masked People--Part IV

[Continued from Part III. The piece is introduced in Part I. As usual, coloured portions mark text that was edited out by EPW.]


Masked Outsiders

Unfortunately, the Himalayan barrier was seriously breached with the arrest of the JNU students, especially that of the president of the student union who happened to be affiliated with the mainstream left. The situation was grave for the leftist teachers of JNU who were faced with the difficult task of adhering to the party-line on Kashmir while finding convincing arguments to defend their students in the public domain. Since the students were charged with ‘anti-national’ activities around the issue of Kashmir, it was difficult to continue to maintain silence on Kashmir.

The simultaneous arrest of Dr. Geelani on the same charges just escalated the problem for the mainstream left. As noted, Geelani is very much the face of Kashmir; he cannot be defended without sharing his cause. If Geelani’s case was placed in the same political package with the students, the pernicious cause of Kashmir would have infected the task of defending the students as well. As one well-known teacher activist of Delhi told me frankly, “If we now get involved with Geelani’s struggles, we will lose all our other battles.”

The solution to this rather turbulent problem was to, first, delink Geelani from the students by simply sidelining Geelani’s case in an otherwise charged public discourse. Second, a very impressive campaign was launched not to highlight injustice in Kashmir and people’s democratic right to protest about it, but to convert the incidental factors of students and university education as the central issues. The simmering protests on Rohit Vemula’s suicide in the University of Hyderabad were linked up with the arrest of JNU students to reach the wider perspective on university education. Third, once the “left-Ambedkarite” package was carefully formulated as the real issue regarding the arrest of the students, the ‘party-line’ was restored by separating the JNU students from direct ‘anti-national’ engagement with Kashmir.

Opinion about the ‘anti-national’ character of the event of 9 February varied. For the hardliners, the very meeting to commemorate Afzal was ‘anti-national’ and severe judicial punishment was called for. Others, mostly from the mainstream left-liberal forces, agreed that the meeting was wrong and distasteful, but it did not violate any law of the land. However, everybody without exception [emphasis removed by EPW] agreed that the two specific slogans about dismemberment and destruction of India were definitely ‘anti-national’ and some form of punishment was in order. With this universal agreement on the ‘nationalist’ limits of dissent, the core authoritarian project of the regime found full endorsement. In effect, the regime made sure that, outside the valley, people will find it difficult to hold memorial meetings on Afzal in public.

Even the leaders of the otherwise vigorous student movement agreed with the basic dictat of the regime. Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of JNUSU said:

We are appalled at the way the entire incident is being used to malign JNU students. At the outset, we want to condemn the undemocratic slogans that were raised by some people on that day. It is important to note that the slogans were not raised by members of Left organisations or JNU students.

Elsewhere, Kumar stated that what happened on 9 February was most objectionable warranting judicial action (karwai honi chahiye”). JNUSU vice-president Shehla Rashid said,

We condemn the undemocratic slogans that were raised by some people on that day. In fact, when the sloganeering had been taking place, it was the Left-progressive organisations and students, including JNUSU office-bearers, who asked the organisers to stop the slogans, which were regressive.

The JNU community thus cannot be held responsible for the ‘undemocratic slogans’ heard on that day.

At last thus the “Left-progressive” organisations found their fall guy. The universally condemnable slogans were not given by anyone from JNU; they were given by ‘outsiders’. With timely help from the media, some videos of 9 February surfaced, showing several people covering their faces while shouting slogans. The insinuation is difficult to miss: these were the outsiders shouting those condemnable undemocratic slogans. As noted, the matter is under judicial review. Without judging the veracity of the suggestion, I will just hold on to it to proceed with the political argument.

Suppose, as darkly suggested in a number of reports on the incident, that these ‘outsiders’ were students from Kashmir affiliated to various institutions in Delhi. By designating them as ‘outsiders’, the JNU community extricated itself from the problem of identifying with their cause; in effect, the community turned its back on their judicial destiny. The entire weight of an increasingly authoritarian regime is to be borne by a dozen or so young Kashmiris wearing masks and chanting furious slogans, hoping someone will listen. Do we know who they are? Why do they need to put on masks in free, democratic India? What is their compulsion for screaming those disturbing slogans and risking their lives in the process?

It is reasonable to assume that they belong to the current generation of Kashmiris who have spent their entire lives amidst catastrophic violence in which the civilian death-toll is nearing 95,000 in three decades of gut-wrenching conflict. They have heard about, if not actually witnessed, rape and murder of friends and relations on a regular basis as over half a million soldiers of the Indian union, armed with AFSPA, ransack their lives. [EPW placed the part on the army in a separate sentence and dropped the last three words]. They are witness to unmarked mass graves where erstwhile ‘missing persons’ found their place. They are surrounded by thousands of women and children undergoing psychological collapse. They have surely taken part since childhood in endless protests, strikes, shut downs, and processions as another atrocity occurred somewhere in the neighbourhood. Perhaps they know of friends barely out of their teens who compulsively joined the ranks of militancy knowing full well that, by now, the ‘shelf-life’ of a militant is a year at most. Perhaps they have carried the bullet-ridden bodies of their friends while marching in shivering cold with hundreds of others, weeping and screaming at the marauding Indian state. On the other side of the Himalayas.

On 9 February, they assembled again to commemorate the memory of a fellow Kashmiri who “personified the lot of his people.” They congregate because “they suffer at the hands of the very forces and the agencies as he did; until he was put to death.” With the instinctive alertness of a prey, they put on masks as they always do in Kashmir, before they screamed again cursing the state that has ruined their land. On this solemn occasion though they had friends from this side of the Himalayas, a tiny group of brave idealistic students who rallied in solidarity. Hand in hand, they chanted the song of hope and freedom.

The hope was short-lived as the predatory state struck. After the confusion partially cleared, the Kashmiris suddenly realized that no one from democratic India was holding their hands anymore. As if that was not enough, they have now been marked, isolated, and abandoned to the wolves so that the preparations for a Left-Ambedkarite revolution can proceed unhindered in multiple colours.

Postscript


It is another matter that the vicissitudes of electoral politics in Kashmir has its own compulsions that, for now, might have saved these masked people shouting ‘undemocratic slogans’ from further harm, notwithstanding the patriotic demand for punishment by democratic India.