By Arun Pillai
Before we can talk about separating ideas from geography, it is necessary to say what ideas are, what I mean by geography, and what traditions are. I will start with ideas.
Ideas are abstract things, like words and numbers. They don’t occupy space or time. A physical object occupies space and time, and if it is in one place, it cannot be in another (I will ignore the puzzles of quantum mechanics here.) This is not true of ideas. We can all simultaneously entertain the same ideas, or utter the same words, or calculate with the same numbers. (This is partly why the area of intellectual property rights is so tricky.) In any case, there is a fund of ideas that belongs to everyone, like the ideas in the sciences and other areas of culture. This fund is available to anyone who wants to avail of it, the only prerequisite being a certain readiness to learn. I will broadly classify these ideas into science, business, art, and everyday life. No doubt many areas of culture are left out as a result, but the chosen areas can serve as examples.
Geography, on the other hand, is a fixed thing, rooted as it is in a particular place. Geography is more than just the physical place however. It includes everything that is tied to the place as well. In particular, it includes certain aspects of traditions. For example, by the geography of India, I mean not just its land, but also aspects of its traditions and culture that are relatively fixed and embodied in its people.
Traditions themselves are in between. They are partly tied to a certain geography and context. But their content can be quite general. At the level of everyday life, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the thoughts we think are all nurtured or possibly stifled by the traditions that undergird them. They define us, both making our lives possible and circumscribing our lives. They allow us to pose problems, whether in science, business, art, or everyday life and solve them in one way or another. Thus, traditions can be thought of as providing problem-solving capabilities to a culture and society. This may be an unusual way of thinking about traditions, but it is extremely powerful because it conceives of traditions as tools for progress, rather than as historical accidents that have to be preserved for their own sake.
It is via traditions, via particular modes of approaching problems, that we access most ideas. Thus, ideas are linked to traditions and traditions are linked to geography.
What do I mean by separating ideas from geography via tradition?
I mean that it is possible and desirable to have access to the whole fund of ideas in existence today by detaching traditions from their contexts and geography to a large degree. This is possible mainly because ideas are abstract. If traditions become relatively independent of geography, then they can house ideas from a wider range of sources than local geography can provide. In other words, our ideas can be freed from geography, from fixity to time and place, by merely making our traditions, our problem-solving capabilities, less rooted. To a certain degree, this has already happened everywhere via the traditions of modernity and postmodernity. Modernity can be thought of as having introduced a relative abstractness in culture, while postmodernity has emphasized the portability of traditions across time and place. Both developments have dislodged tradition from geography. However, this has happened more in the West than elsewhere, partly because these recent traditions originated in the West.
It is impossible to practice science today without being fully global and partaking of developments everywhere in the world. Any result, theoretical or experimental, has to be validated by the world scientific community, and in this sense, scientists are the best examples of true world citizens.
Business everywhere is forced to be global by the very nature of the capitalist system. One can put temporary artificial barriers in its way, as India has done for half a century, but eventually the logic of capitalism makes liberalization inexorable.
Art is a vexed area. Here passions are heated about globalization. But it seems fair to say that many potent developments in all the modern arts came from outside India. Modern art, in all its guises, is not just an intramural phenomenon.
Everyday life is the most rooted in local geography. Here too, largely as a result of the media, there is a gradual but partial movement away from geography.
But why separate ideas from geography?
The main reason is obviously to expand our problem-solving capabilities in every area of human endeavor beyond what is afforded by our geography. In India, except for certain pockets, our fund of ideas is limited to our local (i.e. national and regional) traditions. This may be true elsewhere too, but it is especially true of our relatively autarkic ideologies. This limitation to the local means that we do not and cannot take advantage of advances made elsewhere, especially in business, the arts, and everyday life. Today, many of our traditions are largely of a local sort, and there are efforts to differentiate and defend our local traditions against what is perceived as the onslaught of the West.
This is partly a misperception. It is a fact, perhaps unfortunate, that the major developments of the last 500 years came from the West. However, these developments are no longer the property of the West, they belong to the common fund of ideas that anyone can draw upon. If we insist on labeling them as Western ideas, that is the limitation of our traditions, and we have only ourselves to blame. I am not suggesting that everything the West developed in the last 500 years is worthwhile, nor am I suggesting that we did nothing worthwhile in the last 500 years. It is a matter of how the world developed in the last 500 years, that is all.
The important thing is, to repeat, that this is all part of world culture now, and it is pointless to harp on the opposition between India and the West. It is high time that we should be drawing unapologetically upon the world than upon our local geography alone.
Why is it difficult to do?
Traditions are embodied as habits in people, and habits are hard to break because they invariably become part of our self-definition. Adopting a new tradition involves changing the way we are and this few can readily do. It takes tremendous self-confidence not to say plain effort. But, fortunately or unfortunately, a new world demands new habits.
A way out is to abstract ourselves from our embodiments, and view things as dispassionate problem-solvers and learners. To the extent that we learn to choose our traditions (rather than be chosen by them), and choose through them the ideas that will influence our actions, we will make it possible for our culture and society to prosper in the 21st century.
This note, written in 1999, was submitted as a comment on the previous post on this blog. It is being reproduced by the Moderator as a post in its own right because it merits more exposure, attention and discussion.