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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 38

Towards Appropriate Knowledge

Wednesday 10 September 2008, by Ashok Celly

The following is the introductory chapter of the book, Towards a New Paradigm in Higher Education (Kalpaz Publications, Delhi, 2008), edited by the author. The book was reviewed by Dr R.M. Pal in the form of a Review
— Article in Mainstream (May 10, 2008).

“There is so much I don’t want to know. Wisdom puts a limit even to knowledge.”

In the year 1592, Francies Bacon, the well-known British thinker and essayist, declared: “I confess that I have taken all knowledge to be my province.”1 Bacon’s boast could well be described as the credo of the Renaissance in particular and the modern West in general, for the ideal of infinite knowledge seems to have ruled the consciousness of the Western world ever since and continues to do so to this day.

What precisely is the ideal and what are its implications? One, it makes knowledge the supreme value of human existence. The more we know the better it is, for knowledge per se is viewed as the panacea for human ills. Knowledge is the difference between a sick and a sane society, an unhappy and a happy existence. As Nicholas Maxwell observes:
The view that rational inquiry ought to help enhance the quality of human life by, in the first instance, improving knowledge is, one might say, the official basis creed of the whole scientific/academic enterprise. The view can be traced back at least to Francis Bacon, and perhaps back to the ancient Greeks. It has been almost unthinkingly taken for granted by almost everyone associated with the development of science, scholarship, universities and education in the Western world and elsewhere. As a result the view is now firmly built into the whole intellectual institutional structure of the scientific/academic enterprise.2

It all started with Bacon, one of the pioneers of the scientific method. Bacon (and later Galileo and Newton) was primarily concerned with scientific knowledge—knowledge based on observation and experiment—of the natural world. Seeking inspiration from Bacon, the philosophes Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquien and others extended it to the study of man and society. This meant collection and classification of knowledge in various fields and its finest fruit was a ten-volume Encyclopedia edited by Diderot and d’Alembert. Diderot’s declaration regarding its aims is also an affirmation of the Renaissance-Enlightenment faith in the primary of knowledge implying a causal connection between knowledge and virtue/happiness:

The aim of an Encyclopedia is to assemble the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth to explain its general plan to the men with whom we live, and to transmit it to those who will come after use, so that the labours of the past centuries may not be useless to future times; so that our descendants, by becoming better informed, may in consequence be happier and more virtuous….3

Secondly, the knowledge thus acquired was objective, that is, morally neutral. This had something to do with the famous Cartesian dualism. Descartes, the French thinker and mathematician, tended to divide reality into ‘thinking substance’ and ‘extended substances’, mind and matter, fact and value, objective reality and subjective feelings and desires. The Cartesian schism decisively influenced the Renaissance-Enlightenment philosophy of knowledge. Objective knowledge was privileged and divorced from values and feelings. To quote Maxwell again,

Cartesian dualism divides up reality into two sharply distinct worlds: on the one hand the objective world of act, matter, physical reality; on the other hand, the subjective world of mind, consciousness, personal experience, value. Once this view is accepted (as it was at one time by most scientists in one form or another), it becomes natural to suppose that retinal inquiry, science, will reflect in its overall character the sharp split between fact and value, objective reality and subjective feelings and desires…..4

THERE can be no denying that there was a massive expansion of knowledge in all fields as a consequence but it also led to dehumanisation and nihilism. Nietzsche, the enfant terrible of the Western world, had the clairvoyance to see the fatal consequences of the Renaissance-Enlightenment ideal and recognised the need to delimit knowledge. “There is so much I don’t want to know. Wisdom puts a limit even to knowledge,”5 he declared. He tried to restore sanity to the heady intellectual adventure of the Western man by reminding his peers that knowledge must serve life, not vice versa.

Is life to dominate knowledge and science, or is knowledge to dominate life? Which of these two forces is the higher and more decisive? There can be no doubt: life is the higher, the dominating force, for knowledge which annihilated life would have annihilated itself with it. Knowledge presupposed life and thus has in the preservation of life the same interest as any creature has in its own continued existence.6

The Baconian-Enlightenment emphasis on desirability of knowing all that can be known resulted in an explosion of knowledge, something that mankind (or its scientific/scholastic establishment) couldn’t cope with. It was a case of knowledge overwhelming the knower, as Nietzsche had warned. The Faustian adventure, which seemed to promise so much power and freedom, in fact landed the Western man in a cul de sac. Also, the pursuit of objective, that is, morally neutral, knowledge came to be divorced from human ends and became an autonomous alienated pursuit. The true (Satyam) came to be divorced from the good (Shivam), and its most awesome expression was the Bomb. Thus, the apparently glorious ideal of the pursuit of knowledge regardless of where it would take us led to the Bomb and the blind alley!

With the introduction of Western learning in India following the famous Macaulay minute, we in India also imbibed the Baconian-Enlightenment ideal. The same thing happened in other Third World countries which were colonised by the West. This was disabling for the Third World countries in general and a country like India in particular which has more than three thousand years of cultural history. For the Baconian ideal in practice meant the desirability, nay, the necessity, of assimilating all Western knowledge. The reverse, that is, their Western counterpart acquiring Oriental knowledge, didn’t hold true. Apart form the daunting enormity of this enterprise, it meant for the most part an engagement with ideas and issues that were not central to our socio-cultural existence. Also, it meant joining a rat race in which we were doomed to be political laggards. How often one hears of catching up with the West? The harsh truth is that in this race the West, having had a head-start, is bound to be streets ahead of us. C.T. Kurien’s observations in the 1968 symposium on the Relevance of Social Science in Contemporary Asia underline at once the excessive dependence of the Indian/Asian social scientist on the West and the skewed nature of his intellectual engagement. Kurien observes.
We are neither Asians nor scientists. Our knowledge about the problems of our societies is largely bookish and books that we read are merely from the West….We are beggars, all of us—we sneak under many an academic table to gather the crumbs under them.6

Social scientists from other Asian countries also agonised over the stranglehold of Western concepts and called for truly creative engagement with their own culture and society.8

THIS was in the year 1968, but has the situation substantially changed for the better? Prabhat Patnaik, for instance, in an essay that he contributed to D. School attributed the failure of the Delhi School of Economics to the lack of “collective arrogance”.9 Patnaik’s choice of words may be a little unfortunate but one can hardly quarrel with his basic formulation. In fact, the malaise he detects in D. School characterises the whole enterprise of higher education in India, that is, the utter lack of belief in themselves as a community of scholars to pursue knowledge independent of their counterparts in the West. However, Patnaik is reluctant to face the fact that the lack of belief in themselves—“collective arrogance” as he puts it—is inevitable given our intellectual orientation. To put it plainly, if our heroes are Arrows and Bows, if we subscribe to Western concepts and paradigms, economics or for that matter any social science will remain “a scary domain” and the inevitable conclusion will be “……to really learn economics we had to go there”.10

The dominance of Western concepts and paradigms was evident, as S.C. Dube, the eminent sociologist, has shown convincingly, in the rejection of tradition and history by social anthropologists under the influence of Malinowski and Radcliff-Brown and then their zestful acceptance when Louis Dumont made a strong case for linking Indology and sociology or anthropology.11 It could be seen in the preoccupation with an exclusive economic model of development with its GNP fixation and mindless adherence to the capitalist notion that man is a homo economics driven by greed and envy, a notion which is essentially a product of the bourgeois West and only applicable to a tiny segment of the middle class here. The crippling hold of the Western paradigms could also be seen in the radical intellectual’s indifference to caste as a sociological category perhaps as a mark of devotion to Karl Marx. The kind of liberating skepticism that marked the approach of Mahbub Ul Haq who posed the question,—‘Of what use is conventional economics to us?’—was rarely seen even in elite institutions like D School and JNU. Amartya Sen was an exception but then he was steeped in the rich humanistic culture of Tagore’s Santiniketan which presumably liberated him from the myopia of specialisation on the one hand and the dominance of Western world-view on the other.

It is not that nobody in India recognised this malady—the ills that plagued the academic. Tagore’s plea for “An Eastern University”—a seminal educational text in my opinion—was an attempt to relocate the intellectual centre of gravity here. In his essay Tagore gives expression to his deep sense of anguish over the absence of a centre of learning centrally concerned with the study of India’s cultural and intellectual heritage. He observes:

In the whole length and breadth of India there is not a single university established in the modern time where a foreign or an Indian student can properly be acquainted with the best products of the Indian mind. For that we have to cross the sea and knock at the doors of France and Germany. Educational institutions in our country are India’s alms-bowl of knowledge, they lower our intellectual self-respect…12

Then there was M.G. Ranade, the eminent jurist and leader from western India, who tried to liberate our social sciences from the vice-like grip of the Anglo-Saxon model by reminding Indian social scientists that within the West itself models than the English economic model and thought system existed as a correction to the gaps, deficiencies and onesidedness of English practice.13

Similarly, Lohia, the radical socialist thinker from the north, despite his pressing political concerns, pleaded for greater relevance in university research pointing out that the theories of Adam Smith and Keynes were essentially British in nature.14

THERE were voices of protest in the academia as well. K.C. Bhattacharya, in a lecture delivered as early as 1930, raised his voice against cultural subjection and made a plea for “Swaraj in Ideas”. By cultural subjection Bhattacharya meant a state when one’s traditional cast of ideas and sentiments is superseded without comparison or competition by a new cast representing an alien culture which presses one like a ghost. 15

He passionately opposed mindless acceptance of Western ideas and made a plea for “discovering our own self”16 for only then there will be distinctly Indian estimates of thought and culture.

More recently, another eminent philosopher, Daya Krishna, pointed out that an unhappy consequence of the intellectual dominance of the West is that we feel “embarrassed” about our ignorance of even a second-rate Western thinker while our counterparts in the West are not bothered about even our first-rate thinkers.17 Social scientists, who have made significant contributions to indigenisation of knowledge (freeing it from Western paradigms/concepts and relating it to the socio-cultural milieu), are S.C. Dube, P.C. Joshi and J.P.S. Uberoi. Dube and Joshi have authored books in Hindi and thus in a sense moved from theory to praxis. J.P.S. Uberoi detects the same malady in the field of natural science, namely, its dependence on the West in the name of cosmopolitanism. Dismissing “scientific internationalism as a bridge of illusion”18 Uberoi suggests that there is a direct causal connection between the colonial tie and the lack of originality.

Until we can concentrate on decolonialisation (sic), learn to nationalise our problems and take our poverty seriously, we shall continue to be both colonial and unoriginal.19 (Italics mine)

However, all this did not amount to a groundswell, an intellectual movement. Perhaps they were isolated efforts and needed to be welded together by an alternative epistemology. (The Marxists did have an epistemology of sorts but it was tied a little too narrowly to political action. And even there it leaned too heavily on Russia or China.) If only we had taken the cue from somebody like Nietzsche, if we had the courage to question the Baconian-Enlightenment ideal of knowing more and more as the means of individual fulfilment and social progress, things could have been different. Our socio-cultural needs and aspirations would have determined our academic priorities rather than the monstrous Baconian ideal which made us perennial laggards or “beggars picking up crumbs”, as Kurien noted with great anguish. Here our humanists, that is, philosophers, litterateures and, above all, our historians, had a role to play, for only in humanities are we centrally concerned with the questions: what are we? And what do we want to be? But, sad to say, our humanists were quite content to live in the pigeonholes of their specialisation abandoning their holistic calling. The mammoth expansion of knowledge, one might contend, made specialisation necessary. But specialisation was not recognised as a necessity, a necessary evil. Instead it was glorified. It led to a distortion of perspective. For no humanist worth his salt can be contented with what Arnold Toynbee once described as “a worm’s view”. He must always try to see the underlying connection between apparently disconnected fragments of knowledge. In other words, he must perform the role of an intellectual. Not just transcend the boundaries of a discipline but also that of a culture, in this case the Western culture. May be, by bringing together litterateures, philosophers, social scientists and political activists on one platform we could take a step, however small, in the right direction.

ONE might legitimately ask: “What is the relevance of this project in the era of globalisation? Also, how is it different from the Hindutva dream of reviving the past?” It is true that the world has become a global village, to use the hackneyed phrase, thanks to the communication revolution. Does it mean we must give up our cultural identity and become imitation Yankees? In fact, in the era of globalisation the quest for cultural identity is even more imperative, for cultural uniformity breeds alienation which in turn triggers a fundamentalist backlash as happened in Iran. Globalisation must not negate cultural diversity.

Secondly, to question the dominance of Western knowledge and to plead for an acquaintance with the best products of Indian culture is not to endorse the saffron line. Nothing can be more ridiculous than to view Tagore and other thinkers included here as representing the Hindutva viewpoint. The vital difference between the saffron brigade and the Swarajists, if one may use this term, is that the former mindlesslay glorifies the past while the latter critique it and incorporate what is vital and living in it. Also, he does not take a narrow sectarian view of the past but recognises and celebrates the contributions made by others, that is,Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs and Muslims etc. to Indian culture and society.


1. From a letter to Lord Burghley, cited from The Cambridge Companion to Bacon,(ed.) Markku Petonen, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 5.
- 2. From Knowledge to Wisdom, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1984, p. 2.
- 3. Andrews, Stuart, Eighteenth Century Europe: The 1680s to 1815, Longmans, London, 1965, p. 71.
- 4. From Knowledge to Wisdom, p.12.
- 5. Twilight of the Idols from Twlight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ, trans R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, p. 23.
- 6. “On the uses and advantages of history for life” in Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 78.
- 7. Cited in “Social Sciences for the Eighties”, S.C. Dube on Crisis and Commitment In Social Sciences, (ed.) Yogesh Atal, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi 1983, p. 83.
- 8. The other scholars arte Espiritu, A. Caesar from the Philippines and Yamaoka, Kikuo from Japan. See “Social Sciences for the Eighties” in S.C. Dube on Crisis and Commitment in Social Sciences.
- 9. “Delhi School Days”, D. School, OUP, Delhi, 1995, (ed.) Dharma Kumar and Dilip Mookherjee, p. 118.
- 10. Ibid., p. 117.
- 11. “Indigenisation of the Social Sciences”, S.C. Dube on Crisis and Commitment in Social Sciences, p. 73.
- 12. Selections from the Works of Rabindranath Tagore, Macmillan and Co., Bombay, 1946, p. 65.
- 13. Cited in P.C. Joshi’s “Countering Aupniveshik Mansikta: Swaraj and Swadesh in Indian Social Science”, Man and Development, Vol. XIX, No. 1, March 1975, p. 15.
- 14. “Adam Smith had the genius to equate international trade with geographical division of labour, a primarily British equation but one that ruled the mind of the world for a hundred years and more. J.M. Keynes had again the genius to add the concept of full employment to this equation, another British equation, but one that is currently ruling the mind of the English speaking world.” Cited from “On schemes of research at Indian Universities”, Intervals During Politics, Lohia Library-3, Sindu Publications, Bombay, 1987, p. 55.
- 15. “Swaraj in Ideas”, Four Indian Critical Essays, (ed.) Sisirkumar Ghose, Jijnasa, Calcutta, 1977, p. 13.
- 16. Ibid., p. 14.
- 17. “Encounters Between Civilisations”, New Quest 125, September-October 1997, p. 265.
- 18. Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.) 1968, 2, p. 120.
- 19. Ibid., p. 123.

Dr Celly recently retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. He is presently a freelance writer.

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