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Whither philosophy?

The philosophy community needs to prove its particular relevance in today´s India

Philosophy today is on the margins. Critical thinking has a tough time happening. The conquest of technocratism has possibly suspended our capacity to ask the fundamental existential questions that were once considered indispensable. Consequently, a few universities and colleges — Shivaji University Kolapur; Indira Gandhi National Tribal University, Amarkatnak; Ahmednagar College, Ahmednagar, all in Maharshtra — have shut down their philosophy departments altogether. Other universities such as Bangalore University and Panjab University, have virtually closed the departments by abruptly reducing faculty strength. Bangalore University, for example, has one faculty member running the department! 

As a student of philosophy, I am troubled by this unfortunate state of affairs and feel compelled to look for a way out of it.  I think the philosophy community needs to take up the challenge and prove its relevance at a time when narrow-mindedness towards any critical or inquisitive thought is the norm. To begin with, let’s try to situate philosophical thinking in our surroundings, our everyday lives, and the ways in which the "progress" of the Indian state is unfolding itself.

Let us get some facts straight. In India various disciplines of science, medicine, business administration, development studies and so on have grown by leaps and bounds during the last two decades. Somewhere, though, in this forward movement these subjects were as if they were blindfolded and couldn´t quite gauge where they were headed. Only after several successful experiments with genetic manipulation did the biological sciences take cognizance of its moral implications. A long time into organ transplants and surrogate motherhood and the medical sciences woke up to the moral implications. Only after our cities turned into concrete jungles (popular as urban development) did we wake up to the challenges of pollution, industrial waste disposal and other flaws that they are fraught with. Progress here seems so blind that it left what was once considered to be the core foundation of human life: moral responsibility. The scientific, medical and development discourses thought of the questions regarding moral responsibility only after the damage was done. In the entire process of discoveries and development, ethics was exiled. Morality once recalled to evaluate the damage is as if a “magical” baton which even if thought of later can right the wrongs in a jiffy!

It would, however, be erroneous to implicate only the institutions. Robots, I hear, are yet to take over the world. We, the individuals inhabiting this planet — irrespective of our fault lines along gender, ethnicity, caste and so on — are running the world and its institutions. Where are our ethical concerns? Have we also exiled ethics? Last year, in Kolkata a sudden mishap near the construction site of a flyover left everyone distraught. No one could figure out who was at fault. Was it the living contractor or the controller? Was it the dead cement or the steel? The answer is none and yet all of these at the same time. The answer is us. The contractor, the controller, and the steel/cement plant owner look at their jobs as a mere business, as a means to some narrow end, work for the sake of earning bread and butter. All they earn is intended to meet their ever-increasing tapered personal ends. Nowhere in the wildest dreams will anyone among these (or even us) think of the construction as an obligation or duty; a duty towards the well-being of the contemporaries and those who are yet to come, an obligation towards the present as well as the prospective.

A better example is a person who has been assigned the duty of planting trees and watering them along an expressway. The work seems so light! The person usually treats it as a routine work without knowing the huge impact it can and does have. The ignorance of or indifference to this possible impact makes him or her treat his work casually and see it as a mere source of livelihood. Little doe they recognise that it is an obligation towards the planet and its progeny!  They, in fact, are not merely doing it to fulfill the needs of their current family but future generations as well. They are giving something back to the planet that is being defiled every day in a thousand ways.The sense of the moral dimension of the work is starkly absent. The same is the case with the doctor and the professor, the nurse and the nun, the peon and the president, and in fact all of us.

In short, be it institutions or individuals, we have sent responsibility on a sabbatical, made it disposable. The suspension of morality also explains our ever-growing belief in the “magical”. Be it in the sphere of politics, society or religion, we want quick and magical remedies. We clap whenever anyone promises to weed out corruption. All of us lined for a moment behind Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal awaiting some magic to happen from the Ramlila Maidan. The belief in the magical provides us temporary relief that somewhere someone is taking up the burden which we, as individuals, are refusing to shoulder.

But no single-handed trick can ever right a wrong which is a collective doing of a billion people. On the one hand, no medical ethics can right the wrongs of blind biological advancements, nor can any anti-corruption or demonetisation crusader singlehandedly weed out corrupt practices from every corner. Our problem is that we consider it all probable and plausible. We believe it as blindly as we perform our actions or supposed duties.

The challenge before us is to confront and question the ever-growing emergence of the magical in our society. Philosophers have taken up challenges before. At the beginning of 20th century, philosophers in India took the challenge of that day and formulated the foundations of a national consciousness to foster a more vibrant anticolonial struggle. The writings of Rabindranath Tagore, K.C. Bhattacharya and Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, among others, are examples. The need was so urgent that it at times forced Gandhi and Ambedkar to turn philosophical.

A century later, the philosophy community needs to take up the new challenge of moral deliberation on the most pressing issues of our difficult times. We have to revoke the suspension of ethics and morality from our lives by initiating a dialogue on it. Foregrounding ethics, however, never means undermining the epistemological or ontological questions that are inevitably there. One such beginning can be made by anchoring moral responsibility in fairness and justice —one founded on obligatory fairness towards the people and the planet, towards the earth and the environment, and above all justice towards one another. Such a beginning and many others may well break the tide and make philosophical thinking relevant again. — Muzaffar Ali

(The writer teaches philosophy at Savitribai Phule Pune University. Email: )

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 10:27:17 PM |

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