Posts Tagged ‘Enlightenment’

‘Craving Middleness’: A Critique

April 25, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

I have not read a piece as often in recent days as Craving Middleness. It identifies a problem that is central to the Pakistani predicament – the widening divide between those who consider religion a matter of private belief and those who consider it central to public life. And it recommends the eminently sensible need for a dialogue between the two if an impending confrontation is to be avoided.

While its two end points are so correctly located, the intervening argument seems entangled in claims that are contradicted by observable evidence. It is with reference to this middle that I hope to begin my conversation with the author for whom I have the utmost admiration. (more…)


Craving Middleness

April 8, 2012

By Maryam Sakeenah

I travel across two worlds in my 20-minute commuting distance between both my workplaces: a modern religious school and a private grammar school where scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are privileged with quality education in tune with modern needs. The mindsets I deal with, the attitudes I encounter make for interesting comparison. At the religious school, the concepts of the sacred and the profane as defined by absolute religious morality are the framework for all thought-patterns and behaviour. Fidelity to the sacred is the highest value promoted and readily accepted – at least ostensibly – in an environment designed to actively encourage it. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum is built around and disseminates post Enlightenment Western perspectives and metanarratives, with the fundamental premise being that of morality being relative, and of individual liberty being the highest value to be protected and safeguarded. Students are taught to invariably seek answers and explanations through logic, and question where the logical basis for an assumption seems unsatisfactory. (more…)

More on the Modern South Asian – 2

April 4, 2008

The bottom line in our last post on this subject was the conclusion that there is no distinct event in South Asia quite like the Enlightenment in Europe that can be used to distinguish between pre- and post-event values in terms of ways of thinking about the world. 

The 1857 Mutiny and the 1947 Partition are both major events in recent South Asian history but they do not mark a profound break in ways of thinking or of comprehending the world. Thus the defining characteristic of South Asian values is their continuity. This was the reason why in an earlier post we had remarked that “South Asians have either always been modern or they remain pre-modern depending how one prefers to look upon the phenomenon.”

Subsequently we have dropped the use of the term “modern” because of its various distracting connotations. Our inference is that South Asian values have been evolutionary – they have certainly changed over time but slowly and the core values have remained remarkably stable. While South Asians have advanced rapidly in scientific, technological and political arenas as the region has integrated into the global economy their way of understanding the world has changed relatively little. One way to put it would be to say that the external world has changed but the filter through which that world is interpreted has remained the same. We should reiterate that we are not interested in whether this is good or bad in itself.

An illustration of this phenomenon is provided by how the above-mentioned advances have been indigenized or incorporated into South Asian life. We had given an example in an earlier post of how a new practice finds root in alien soil quoting from Ramachandra Guha’s ethnographic accounts of the 1967 elections in India: “These show that elections were no longer a top dressing on inhospitable soil; they had been fully internalized, made part of Indian life. An election was a festival with its own unique set of rituals, enacted every five years.”

So, finally we have arrived at the question we want to answer: What is the core set of South Asian values that have been evolving over time and how have they changed?

This is not a new question and it is appropriate to pause with a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru (The Discovery of India, Calcutta, 1946, pp. 30-31):

India was in my blood… And yet I approached her almost as an alien critic, full of dislike for the present as well as for many of the relics of the past that I saw. To some extent I came to her via the West and looked at her as a friendly westerner might have done. I was eager and anxious to change her outlook and appearance and give her a garb of modernity. And yet doubts rose within me.

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More on the Modern South Asian – 1

March 23, 2008

We are very far from clarity on the issue of the modern South Asian as would be obvious from the comments on the previous post on this topic.

First of all, the very word ‘modern’ is problematic leading us astray in our discussion. The point to note is that there is an episode in Europe called the Enlightenment that Europeans use to mark a break in their value system. We can just as easily call them pre- and post-Enlightenment values and ignore the fact that Europeans have appropriated the term ‘modern’ for the latter set. 

We have no interest in arguing whether post-Enlightenment values are ‘better’ than pre-Enlightenment values in any way. We are aware of the post-modern critique of ‘modern’ values, attributing to them all sorts of ills from the Holocaust and the viciousness of our ways to alienation and the emptiness of our lives. This is an important dimension but not what we are focused on at this time.

Nor are we focused on the alleged disconnect between the ideal post-Enlightenment values and the actual behavior of many ‘modern’ Europeans. Nor are we interested in turning this into an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ contest by judging South Asians against the benchmark of post-Enlightenment European values.

Finally, we mentioned in the previous post that we were not interested in scientific or technological modernity. In the same vein, we are not interested in political modernity. In Provincializing Europe Dipesh Chakrabarty has defined the phenomenon of ‘political modernity’ as “the rule by modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise” noting, incidentally, that these cannot be thought of outside the context of the European Enlightenment. Chakrabarty refers to Ranajit Guha to say that South Asian political modernity “brings together two noncommensurable logics of power, both modern. One is the logic of the quasi-liberal legal and institutional frameworks that European rule introduced into the country… [Accompanying] is the logic of another set of relationships… that articulate hierarchy through practices of direct and explicit subordination of the less powerful by the more powerful.”

This illustrates what we are trying to get at. We are not implying that South Asians are irrational or backward or pre-modern. They will use ‘modern’ technology or ‘modern’ institutions just as well or as badly as any one else mediated by their costs and benefits. But the nature of this use would be infused by a particular set of values (e.g., hierarchy). What exactly is that set of values today? How does the South Asian ‘think’ of the ‘scientific’ and the ‘political’? What does it mean to be comfortable with Islamic Physics or dynastic succession or lower orders? That is what we are after.

We will pick up on this theme in the next post.

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Is There Such a Thing as a Modern South Asian?

March 15, 2008

We have been struggling to understand the nature of modernity in South Asia and in one of the posts on the topic (How Modern is Modern?) had left off with the following observation from a reader: “Even the small segment one might call modern has never experienced anything like the Enlightenment directly so that culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors.”

This prompted us to look up the literature on the Enlightenment in greater detail and our search could well leave us with the conclusion that there is really no such thing as a modern South Asian. We will follow up this heretical thread later in this post but let us first introduce an exceptionally illuminating book on the subject of the Enlightenment.

In Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford University Press, 2006), Jonathan Israel enumerates what he views as the enduring, core values of the Enlightenment:

1) Philosophical reason as the criterion of what is true; 2) rejection of supernatural agency (divine providence); 3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual equality); 4) secular universalism in ethics anchored in equality and stressing equity, justice, and charity; 5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought; 6) personal liberty of lifestyle between consenting adults, safeguarding the dignity and freedom of the unmarried and homosexuals; 7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press in the public sphere; and 8) democratic republicanism.

Israel argues that the Enlightenment was responsible for the emergence of liberal modernity in the eighteenth century with its rejection of ecclesiastical authority and the superstitious interpretations of accepted religion, its strict differentiation between truth and belief, philosophy and religion, its rejection of authoritarianism and insistence on human equality regardless of race, gender, and class, and its demand for the absolute freedom of expression in the public sphere. This radical model of full equality and absolute freedom of expression – in which the unrelenting critique of existing church and political authority, sexual roles, gender differences, empire, and colonialism was first fully articulated – represents the cornerstone of modernity.

Thus a specific set of notions – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, equality racial and sexual, freedom of expression, sexual emancipation, and the universal right to knowledge – are at the heart of what can be described as the system of modern Western values.

With this background we can now ask: What is the corresponding set of values that describes the modern South Asian? Note that we are concerned here not with the facility with modern science and technology but with a certain set of values that are associated with a modern worldview. Was our reader right when he claimed that “culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors?”

Of course, the title of this post is rhetorical and we do not intend to take a Eurocentric perspective on modernity in South Asia. We are well aware of the excellent arguments made by Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provicializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press 2001) warning against the intellectual pitfalls in adopting such a simplistic stance. But while accepting that the values that describe a modern European need not be the same that describe a modern South Asian, we can still ask for an enumeration of the set of values that characterize a modern South Asian.

And it is from this perspective that we could conceivably argue that with no sharp break between old and new values in South Asia, it may be an intellectually defensible claim to say that there is no such thing as a modern South Asian. South Asians have become scientifically and technologically advanced but their core values have changed relatively little – South Asians have either always been modern or they remain pre-modern depending how one prefers to look upon the phenomenon.

Jonathan Israel’s primary purpose in writing his book was not to enumerate the values that characterize modernity and the values they replaced although he does an excellent job of that. He is more interested in explaining the events and the path that led to these changes. More importantly, he is interested in the sociology and history of ideas. It is the radical claim of the book that the credit for the Enlightenment belongs not to some of the greatest names traditionally associated with the Enlightenment – such as Locke, Newton, Leibniz, Wolff, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hume and Kant, all of whom Israel portrays as Enlightenment ‘moderates’ – but to the Enlightenment ‘radicals’ whose leadership belonged to Spinoza.

Israel’s book is worth reading if one is interested in ideas and in understanding how ideas help to shape history. It could inspire some of our young scholars to pursue a similar exploration of the critical ideas that have shaped, for better or for worse, the history of South Asia in our times.

Two excellent critical commentaries on Jonathan Israel’s book from which we have borrowed and benefited greatly can be found at the following links:

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