Understanding Nehru, the visionary 

Nehru did not set the natural, experimental and exact sciences in opposition to human sciences

Tagore and Nehru at Shantiniketan on November 4, 1936.

Tagore and Nehru at Shantiniketan on November 4, 1936.

Nehru is celebrated for his advocacy of the ‘scientific temper’, yet whatever he wrote and spoke was wholly in the human sciences rather than in what is commonly understood as science.

The science that he was committed to has been projected as schoolchildren understand science, a set of subjects different from and virtually opposed to the social sciences and the humanities, or what is also called the human sciences. In much of official and public discourse, he has been constructed as a peddler and hawker of engineering and medical colleges. But Nehru was neither philistine nor infantile; he did not set the natural, experimental, and exact sciences in opposition to the human sciences; and he himself was a person of considerable literary talent and poetic and artistic sensibility. His publications, speeches, correspondence, and interviews reveal a historian, political philosopher, social theorist, and thinker in allied domains. His scientific temper was displayed only in the human sciences.

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To him, knowledge was the product of empirical investigation and logical reasoning, usually known as the scientific method, and any other process led to error. The philosopher, historian, jurist, or literary critic had to be as scientific as the sociologist, economist, or linguist; and, unlikely as it might seem, they had to be no less so than the mathematician, astronomer, and zoologist. The differences lay in the nature of proof. The physicist and chemist could experiment repetitively to test a hypothesis and arrive at laws; the historian and geologist could not do so and had to be satisfied with hypotheses and generalisations on the basis of available facts; but all of them were scientific as they had to both adduce evidence for any claim and use only such evidence as is available to others also.

There was no question of privileged knowledge, whether it was received from ancestors, revealed by god, or glimpsed through flashes of inspiration. These are the bare essentials of the scientific method as prescribed in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, and such was Nehru’s primary understanding of it. He did not make the invidious distinction between the natural and social or human sciences when he proclaimed the virtues of the scientific temper. All true knowledge in any sphere was scientific; it was understood as such in Europe; and even in the English language, terms like social sciences expressed that conviction. He campaigned with missionary zeal in the cause of scientific reasoning as he felt India stood in dire need of it. It liberated the mind from superstition, dogma, ritual, habit, and custom, and permitted it to explore both the infinite expanse of the universe of nature and the limitless internal spaces of the mind.

Forever optimistic

Himself of sanguine temperament, he was forever optimistic, and entertained an 18th century conviction that true knowledge must lead to beneficent results. He maintained that conviction in spite of the experience of the 20th century, when knowledge arrived at in a perfectly scientific and rational manner was employed for greater destruction than ever known in human history. He also feared that the advances in science brought humanity to the brink of the nuclear holocaust. But he did not turn into a sceptic; he adhered to the position that true knowledge alone could bring awareness of danger even if such knowledge could be perverted. He could never succumb to a catastrophic vision of modernity; and he would have comprehended well why the most dystopian authors of the 20th century, be it Zamyatin or Orwell or any other, left an opening for escape from the gulag world of our own creation.

Nehru campaigned with missionary zeal in the cause of scientific reasoning as he felt India stood in dire need of it.

Nehru campaigned with missionary zeal in the cause of scientific reasoning as he felt India stood in dire need of it.

But Nehru was not satisfied with mere method or technique. True knowledge or science went far beyond, as the pursuit of truth and a voyage of discovery into the limitless unknown, driven by a passion beyond the rational. He deplored the fact that scientists did not understand science adequately, for they were all too often confined to technique and did not engage in the further imperatives of critique and exploration. It was not self-evident that the scientific temper had permeated a world dominated by science: “We live in a scientific age, so we are told, but there is little evidence of this temper in the people anywhere or even in their leaders.” The end of an arduous investigation would be merely the beginning of another. In this respect, he stood with many critical thinkers of the modern condition, in believing that nothing could be final, that newer vistas were forever unfolding.

At this moment, it became a spiritual quest: “The true scientist is the sage unattached to life and the fruits of action, ever seeking truth wheresoever this quest might lead him.” The ceaseless search for the truth, whatever it was and whether it was unknowable or not worth knowing finally, made it a spiritual pursuit akin to the religious, but superior to the religious as normally understood: “For me a true scientist today is, perhaps, more spiritual than a man who may call himself religious, and whose mind is limited by some religious values and does not go beyond it.”

He found “a certain spiritual quality” in the work of both Jagdish Chandra Bose and Albert Einstein. Always restless and imaginative, he considered possibilities beyond the everyday. As he reflected on one of his favourite themes, the world as one and united, he at once dreamt of variations within it: “But why should we stop at this one world idea? It is really an incursion into new worlds. And I am not for the moment talking about the new world in the sense of other planets and stars”. Science was the religion of modernity to him; but it was more than the scientific method. Like religion before secularisation, science today structures all life: religion has become an autonomous segment of life, but science encompasses all of it, including religion. The mind could explore outer space, it could travel inward into the mind, and it could find or create new worlds within our own planetary world. In this flux of ideas, his inquiring mind moved from discovery to pure creation.

Science suffered from the limitation that it could not create, it could only investigate. Science could not produce the artist and the poet; paradoxically, science could not even yield the innovative and creative scientist. Nehru once cited a Chinese poet: “It is essential to know the language well but you must forget the rules and regulations if you want to write poetry.” When science and reason had reached their limits, something else was needed for the human mind. “There was no knowledge of ultimate purposes and not even an understanding of the immediate purposes, for science has told us nothing about any purpose in life.”

The answer to these imperfections of science and reason was what he called the scientific temper. It may appear puzzling that he proposed scientific temper as the means of overcoming what was lacking in science. He added to the confusion by proposing two distinct concepts of scientific temper. The first was as critique and exploration, but the second was something more: “Science deals with the domain of positive knowledge but the temper which it should produce goes beyond that domain.” For him, such a temper was an attribute of freedom, freedom not only as embodied in democratic institutions, politics, and the rule of law, but the ecstasy and agony of creativity, uninhibited and fearless, imagining and inventing new worlds that had not been dreamt of, the realm of true art.

He was a romantic, and his ideal in life was the artist striving to imagine, invent, and create out of nothing. Not surprisingly, he found Gandhi had been “the perfect artist” in life as in death. In his quest for what he himself was not able to express clearly enough, he went so far as to suggest that “we have perhaps to go to the fourth dimension.” He distinguished between the restlessness of the seeker and the genius of the artist, and he called both of them at different times and in different places signs of the scientific temper. In his lexicon, it was also spiritual, and the work of the greatest scientists was spiritual.

Reason vs. art

To the end of his life, he stressed on the distinction between the scientific method and the scientific temper, between discovery and creation, between reason and art. In so many different ways, he expressed his craving to paint and to dream, to pursue visions and fantasies. He did not seek to discover them; they were not there to be discovered. The human mind invented them out of its own resources, and none could prescribe its purposes. He cited Blaise Pascal to drive home the point that reason must recognise and determine its limits so that possibilities beyond it could be explored: “Reason’s last step is to recognise that there is an infinite number of things which surpass it. It is simply feeble if it does not go as far as realising that.” What lay within the bounds of reason, he called science and the scientific method; what extended on the far side was pure creativity. This was the domain of the scientific temper, art, and spirituality, energising science without being science, for only reason could glimpse the field beyond reason. The two were conceptually distinct yet related, but he allowed the overlap also.

Why did he deploy the expression ‘scientific temper’ for artistic creativity? Nehru was faced with everything that seemed irrational, from the vagaries of the colonial state down to the atrocity of caste and the destitution of the masses. In such a predicament, he considered it his first duty to strive to establish science in a hostile environment. But he was also a romantic who experienced the limits of reason and science and wished to create like an artist. He sought to rise above science, but without denigrating it. His scientific temper was neither the Reason of the Enlightenment nor the science of the 19th century but the Romantic supersession of both through artistic creativity. It was a conceptual fusion of two processes or ideals, the establishment of one state and its simultaneous transcendence in another. On behalf of India as a late developer, Nehru merged into one what were distinct phases of development in other parts of the world.

Nehru needed reason and science to draw India out of darkness into the light, and he wanted the Romantic subversion of them to transform that light into creative energy. Life was fertile and fecund, otherwise it was not life; science by itself marked stagnation on the plateau of reason; but the scientific temper was creative, inventive, and life-giving, in short, spiritual and artistic.

The writer is the editor of Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru . This is the second in the essay series on Nehru in the Magazine .


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