Akeel Bilgrami: A Reply to Robbins, Jager, Smith, Levine, Manikkalingam, and Mehta

I am grateful to the contributors to this web symposium on “Occidentalism, The Very Idea: An Essay on the Enlightenment and Enchantment”, (first published in Critical Inquiry, 2006) for having bothered to read my work and comment on it. I would like to apologize to them (and to Abbas Raza and Robin Varghese, the editors of the excellent website “3 Quarks Daily” who proposed this symposium to me well over a year ago) for being so delayed in my responses.

I have replied to the comments in the order in which they were sent to me. If I spend proportionately more space on the comment by Bruce Robbins, it is only because I feel he continues to drastically misconstrue my views in a way that that I would not like to stand uncorrected.

Reply To Robbins II

There is a cast of mind I find a strain, even a repugnance, which constantly seeks to reduce issues of historical and philosophical depth to a galumphing topicality.

In my reply to Robbins’s first comment on my initial essay, I had pointed to how utterly misplaced his suggestion was that I had some concern in that essay to instruct ‘the Left’ about how to win an election (‘seize power ‘, I believe, was his expression) in America. My refusal to be drawn into this effort to steer the discussion of my work to his own up-to-the-minute political preoccupations has left him frustrated.

In the first sentence of his latest comment, he pounces hungrily on an opening remark in the comment by Colin Jager in this web symposium, saying: “I’m grateful to Colin Jager for attaching this renewal of the “Occidentialism” conversation immediately and firmly to the upcoming election.” But Jager does nothing of the sort. He merely cites Obama’s controversial claim about how some of the political attitudes and the religiosity in working class America might owe partly to certain broadly characterized social and economic deprivations they have suffered in the last few decades with a view to raising the hard questions about false consciousness that I had briefly discussed in my essay, and then proceeds to ideas about disenchantment, community and solidarity that I had presented there in the long genealogical diagnosis I had offered of some of the conditions of advanced, industrial society in the West, especially in America, from its early conceptual and material origins in the late seventeenth century. Jager’s interest is in assessing my account of these things, not at all in the ‘upcoming elections’.

In the next sentence, Robbins writes: “Akeel Bilgrami’s Critical Inquiry (2006) article suggested that the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 was in large part the result of the ‘shallowness of the Left diagnosis,’ which saw the red states’ bitterness and turn to religion as ‘consequences of the market.’ ” This, too, is false. I mentioned the 2004 election once only to cite an undemocratic Liberal Left response to the ordinary people who were responsible for its outcome. In the brief last section of my essay where the election gets this mention, my canvas is the much bigger one of modern American culture and politics, whose span was delineated by me explicitly with phrases such as “ever since the Goldwater defeat” and ‘for some forty years’. I do believe that the Liberal Left has been shallow in America and I do believe that the Republican Party has been cynically tapping things in the American heartland that metropolitan Liberals have not grasped with any searching historical analysis or psychological sensitivity. But these beliefs were not presented as opinions geared to any recent or future election.

It is a depthless journalist’s tendency to think, as Robbins does, that the latest shifts in poll-monitored percentage points in a given week or month reflect any appreciable difference in the facts, accumulated over the last few decades, about the religious commitments of extraordinarily large numbers of people that have made and continue to make an overwhelming difference to American politics. If this or that politician today (McCain, for instance) does not speak in a campaign with the same religious fervour as his predecessor nor get quite the same response that his predecessor got, that is not a sign that matters of religion and ‘values’ –as Robbins puts it—are not relevant to this country’s politics. Their accumulated relevance is too obvious to deny, and this difference in the behaviour of a particular politician at this particular instant may just be because, over these many years, the Republican alliance with the Religious Right has made more or less certain that the very considerable conservative religious vote is quite secure for the Republicans, and McCain can now focus on the swing voter instead.

I feel embarrassed indulging Robbins’s obsession with yesterday’s headlines and today’s polls and the coming November, in a symposium such as this, given its larger theme –much the same embarrassment someone would feel in having to engage an infatuated man who parades his mistress in a thoroughly inappropriate place.

So let me turn away to the next point he makes: his insistence once again on the relevance of the derivation of ‘ought’ from ‘is’ to my views on value. Here is what he says this time.

“I can imagine at least some reason for taking this idea on: knowing more about the distant impact of my actions on the natural environment (is) might well change my sense of my ethical obligations (ought). But I don’t think this is what Bilgrami means, or what his argument would mean if taken seriously by the non-philosophers like myself who seem to be the implicit addressees of his original essay. So if I offer this statement as a concise summary of the differences between Bilgrami and myself, I do so on the assumption that we are arguing at a non-technical level.”

It needs no technical philosophy, it needs knowledge of English and average intelligence, to understand the following. What he calls the ‘distinct impact of one’s action on the natural environment’ can be characterized in normative terms or in descriptive terms. If it is characterized in normative terms, and some conclusion is derived from it about how one should (again quoting him) ‘change one’s sense of ethical obligation’, then one has only derived an ‘ought’ from an ‘ought’, one normative statement from another normative statement. If it is described in purely descriptive terms, if there is really no normative vocabulary whatsoever in the description of the ‘distant impact of one’s action on the natural environment’ then the derivation, if valid, would be a derivation of an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Those who doubt the validity of such derivations are sceptical of the idea that there really is no (not even a hidden) normative description in play when one characterizes the impact of one’s actions on the natural environment. So, even though this point requires him to master no technicality, it does require him to think a little harder before he gives glib examples of an ‘is-ought’ derivation, to think harder, that is, about how to characterize the impact that he cites in the premise of his derivation. Can it really be characterized in purely descriptive and non-normative terms? So, for instance, were one to use terms like ‘drought’ or ‘famine’ or ‘pollution’ in the characterization of the impact of one’s actions on the environment, are these really non-normative descriptions? Aren’t these, implicitly at least, normative terms? Can you hear that something is a ‘drought’ or a ‘famine’ or ‘polluted’ without hearing that it is also a bad thing? If you cannot, then the terms are normative. And if they are normative, there is no is-ought derivation. There is no ‘is’, as it were. You could, of course, remove all such vocabulary from the description of the impact, for example by substituting for ‘famine’, expressions that give the average caloric count within a population. This would be a purely descriptive, non-normative premise. If you derived an ethical obligation from such a premise such as, say, “I ought to donate to Oxfam’, then you would have an is-ought derivation. But a question will be raised: Why should a certain number assigned to a certain average caloric count by itself yield a derivation about an ethical obligation. It is a mere number after all. For the derivation to go through, wouldn’t you need a further premise (a ‘major’ premise) over and above the one that specifies the caloric count, a further premise which said that anything (any number) below a certain caloric count amounts to starvation or under-nourishment and therefore famine; but now, all these are normative terms. If so, we have a normative premise after all, and once again no is-ought derivation.

It is impossible to have a serious exchange on this topic of the sort that Robbins seems so keen to have until he formulates his idea of such a derivation with these details addressed. It won’t do to just formulate an abjectly underdescribed example, as he does, and then bustle us to “take this idea on.”

All right, so that is the end of the tutorial, but I want to repeat here what I had said –in English, without any technicality– in my earlier reply to him. In his first response to my initial essay, he had expressed the opinion: “I do not think we should be deriving any ‘ought’ from any natural ‘is’. “ And my response was: the opinion is gratuitous because such a derivation is of no interest to my view of value. I (and some others –Aristotle, for instance, as interpreted by John McDowell) claim that values are properties of the world (including nature) and are not just a matter of ‘projection’ by us onto the world, to use Hume’s metaphor. So, if ‘values’ suffuse the world, if the world itself often must get normative descriptions, the entire question of deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’, simply lapses. I perceive (not derive) what I ought to do in perceiving and understanding the world itself. This view may be wrong but, whether right or wrong, it takes no position and needs to take no position on the derivation that Robbins wants to foist on me.

I cannot (I doubt anyone can) put things more simply than this.

Once again in this second comment, there is much talk of Gandhi and it rises to new heights of clueless speculation about his ideas.

I had pointed out that — in the context of a discussion of the form of ‘political power’ that underlay the stance of Said’s ‘Orientalist’– Robbins was historically wrong to say that Gandhi wielded political power. Thrashing around for some sort of reply to this exposure of ignorance of history, he says this: “According to Bilgrami, the crucial difference between Orientalism (“our” negative stereotyping of “them”) and Occidentalism (“their” negative stereotyping of “us”) is that we have power and they don’t. Bilgrami also claims that I made a gross mistake in saying that Gandhi wielded power. If I put these two claims together (I speak again with the heuristic crudeness that seems most useful for such a brief exchange), I get the speculative conclusion that for Bilgrami it’s always the bad guys who have power, and it’s by following the power, so to speak, that you can tell who the bad guys are. The good guys are innocents because, like Gandhi, they are spiritual rather than powerful.”

I especially like his use of the term ‘speculative’. Just about the only thing in this passage that isn’t comical is the first half of the remark in the last parenthesis, and even that prompts a giggle because of its understatement.

Let me say that I am, as it happens, like Said, given to suspicion of the sort of political power that Said was discussing in his book Orientalism, and also, like Gandhi, of centralized forms of state power. (Gandhi had no objection to decentralized forms of politics and power and in fact theorized them with some sophistication.) But –to be plain about it– it is lunk-headed to think that this suspicion of mine follows from the two empirical and historical claims I made that Robbins puts together. One could have no suspicion of such political power, one could think it is the most delightful thing in the world, ‘better than sex’, and yet make those two claims quite accurately. It is not just ‘heuristic crudeness’ that the passage betrays, it reveals highly imperfect logical powers.

This passage is followed by some banalities about power, which he presents in a self-congratulatory way as something that is privileged knowledge for ‘students of culture’ such as himself. One of these banalities is that “power is distributed in much more complex and less binary ways”. Since, as I have just shown, the comparatives (“more”, “less”) are targeting some ‘speculative’ interpretative fantasy about what I have written, let’s drop them. Dropping them, yields the banality: power comes in different forms, some good, some bad.” And then, he adds, clutching at a straw that I had offered him to redeem his historical ignorance, “I myself admire the power Gandhi was able to wield in organizing the movement that overthrew colonialism in India. (That’s of course what I meant, not that he held elected office.)”

I will leave it to the reader (who is idle enough to possess the time and inclination to pursue the matter) to decide for himself whether he believes Robbins when he says that that is indeed what he meant all along when he spoke of Gandhi wielding power –since there is no visible evidence for that meaning in what he says on that occasion. But even if we allow that he intended that meaning of ‘power’, what was its point in that discussion? We can put it on record that he admires the mobilizational power that Gandhi wielded. Why are we being told this? Does he want to imply that he does not admire power in the other sense that was my subject and Said’s? If so, we are agreed on something, in which case the only surprising thing is the tone of disagreement in which it was expressed. The fact is that the remark about Gandhi’s wielding power, if it is given this meaning, had no point in that context. Neither Said nor I was discussing the notion of power as a form of anti-colonial mobilization in describing the Orientalist. So, in that context, it makes no odds that power comes in various forms, some good, some bad, and to announce that it does is fatuous. Said (and I) were focused on one specific notion of power and I was sympathetic to his suspicion and criticism of it. To introduce the idea of mobilizational power wielded by Gandhi in that discussion lands Robbins in the very same midden, I had identified. He had simply perpetrated a bad pun and changed his own subject of power in the space of three or four sentences without so much as noticing it.

At the end of this renewed discussion of Gandhi on power in this second comment, a conclusion is pronounced: “Occidentalism is not a good thing, even if it’s the weak who practice it.” This tiresome moralism is directed at me, so he must think that I think ‘Occidentalism’ is a good thing.

Do I?

As you might have come to expect, there is more nuance to the issue than is suggested in Robbins’s conclusion. Even as Buruma and Margalit deploy it, the term ’Occidentalism’ is an omnibus one. There is more than one kind of Occidentalist.

If by “Occidentalists” one means what Buruma and Margalit, for the most part, mean (‘Islamist Jihadis’ seeking to spread terror in the West), then I had said that it was “morally cretinous” to say that they were good. That is on page 405 in Critical Inquiry, 2006, vol.32, no.3. Robbins could not have missed this point, however convenient it is for his polemical compulsions to write as if it was never made. I realize that I am not obliged to display my anti-terrorist credentials to every silly person who demands to see them because he wants to cozy up to an intellectual establishment that is waging a cold war against Islam. He had asked me to display them in his last comment too, when he wondered if I would ‘reassure’ him and others that I didn’t want Occidentalists to have more power. In my response, I had tried to convey my views more subtly than I have here, hoping that he would get the point by inference. But, of course, that didn’t happen, so I thought I should hush his moralistic anxieties here by citing a page reference. I admire many moralists. However, to be a moralist of this predictable kind on this topic in the present context is perhaps better than being a bore, but not by much and it is not very different.

The ‘Islamist Jihadi’ is not the only kind of ‘Occidentalist’, according to Buruma and Margalit, and I myself had extended the reference of their term by arguing that Gandhi was an ‘Occidentalist’ by every conceptual criterion that those authors had laid down. His distinctiveness from some of the dreaded others was that his activism was non-violent.

Robbins, pretending to have understood Gandhi, seems to think that his Occidentalism is not a good thing either. His grounds are mainly these and they are stated immediately after the assertion of his admiration for Gandhi’s wielding mobilizational power against the British imperial state: “But of course, circumstances have now changed. It is now Indian capital and the Indian state that hold the preponderance of power in India. Yet there are huge numbers of Indians below the poverty line. It is worth asking again, therefore, as I did in my first response: who stands to gain in today’s India from a repetition of the Gandhian program of merely individual, ethical, spiritual improvement? Who is threatened by its opposite (which Uday Mehta rejects as Western liberalism), improvement sought by means of “politics and power”?”

Put aside the fact that it is not merely Indian capital but considerable foreign capital that is the source of power in India today. Gandhi is being criticized for being ‘merely’ individual, ethical, and spiritual in his ideal of ‘improvement’. What then does he make of the fact that these very ethical, spiritual, and individual values were stressed by Gandhi in his “wielding of power’ against the British that Robbins admires? They were essential to his ideal of that mobilization. Pick up any page (has Robbins?), any random page, of his writing or his speeches on the subject of resistance to the British and you will learn this. And if you wanted some proof that there was nothing ‘mere’ about the ethical for him, that would come with what you have learnt.

In general, it reveals a great deal about someone’s mentality that he uses the word ‘merely’ as a qualifier of ‘the ethical’; and I would think that someone capable of the expression ‘merely ethical’ is not a reliable source of where the ethical may be found.

Gandhi wrote with insight about the political economy of British colonialism and with prescience about its debilitating legacy for a post-colonial India that was in thrall to the economic apparatus assumed by British or ‘Western’ ideas of ‘development’. I suppose one would have to decide whether it is ignorance of Gandhi or of the idiomatic usage of the term ‘merely’ (and here I grant Robbins privileged knowledge of his own absent states of mind, so he can decide for himself) that someone is described as ‘merely’ ethical who wrote at great length a) about the ways in which the cotton industry in Lancashire was being boosted by the British imperial state precisely in proportion to the imperial state’s destruction of its indigenous counterpart industry in India, and at even greater length about b) how ‘Western liberalism’ (which is not just Uday Mehta’s phrase, but a constant subject in Gandhi’s writings) as a political doctrine (of what I had called the “orthodox Enlightenment”) had been constructed as the ideological support of a notion of economic development that catered to metropolitan elites at the cost of the welfare of ordinary people. Many have said this about Western Liberalism, including, of course, Marx, but none have said it in such clear, civil, and bracing prose as Gandhi.

Robbins’s idea that such a stance on ‘Western Liberalism’ must amount to a rejection altogether of ‘politics and power’ as a path of ‘improvement’ for the ‘huge numbers of Indians below the poverty line”, strictly implies that there is no ‘politics or power’ for improving the conditions of the Indian people that is not countenanced by Western liberalism. The whole point of Gandhi’s ‘Occidentalism’ is that to subscribe to that implication is a form of cognitive slavery to the West and, in the end, a form of economic submission to the corporate, imperial West, a submission that would survive the gaining of formal independence (that is to say, survive what Robbins describes as the ‘changed circumstances’ on the scene of Indian power). His warnings about this are echoed by dissenting political groups of the Left in India to this day. To dismiss them as issuing from ‘mere spirituality’ is to lack any clue about the nature of his form of radical politics.

My own initial essay argued that Gandhi might be placed in another trajectory of Western thought than the liberalism of the Orthodox Enlightenment that he opposed –what I, following some others, called ‘The Radical Enlightenment’ in which ‘politics and power’ were elaborated in terms of ideas that first flowed from popular movements in that remarkable period of the 1640s in England and have surfaced in modified forms in later periods, culminating, as I said, in some of Gandhi’s ideas about more decentralized power and economies than has been adopted by ‘the changed circumstances’ of successive administrations in independent India. I have no reason to think that Robbins is hostile to such a form of radical politics. For all I know, he might wish to applaud it. I really have no idea. But for either of these things, hostility or applause, he would of course have to first recognize it as a form of politics and not (cluelessly, as I put it) sneer at it as some sort of ‘spirituality’. I rather suspect that a recognition of this sort of politics on his part will depend on whether it gets picked up one of these days by the intellectual trends he finds glamorous.

Let me put the point in another – actually, converse– way. I honestly have no idea whether Robbins does or does not subscribe to the implication I had italicized above. It’s possible that he does and that he is cheerleading for a dominant form of liberalism that Gandhi and the ‘Radical Enlightenment’ have opposed –in much the same spirit that he demands that I declare my position on Occidentalist terrorists. The implication I italicized follows strictly from things he says, but he has such a limp grasp on so many of his own assertions and what they imply, that I will not venture to attribute to him any particular political stance on this specific question. Enough just to register the muddles and misreadings — when these come so thick and fast, just establishing some clarity feels to me like a moral achievement.

Much of the rest of the latest comment is about disenchantment and re-enchantment. We are told: “What Bilgrami proposes is that nature tells us (tells all humans everywhere, without regard to difference of place, time, or culture) that we should never eat pork or that we ought to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

This is just one of several profusely inexact interpretations of what I say. Another is that I want to “make more room” for religion in American politics just because I think that we ought to diagnose with greater depth than is done by the dismissive metropolitan liberals the already existing high (in my opinion, just for the record, much too high) levels of religion in American politics. This last is so childish a fallacy that high school manuals for informal reasoning would include it among howlers to avoid. When it comes from a grown man, it deserves to be ignored with contempt. So let me instead say something about the passage I have just quoted.

I made no universalist, context-free, claims for my conception of value (nor do Aristotle or McDowell) and have consistently said that responses to the evaluative demands from the world (including nature) that prompt our practical agency, may differ among cultures and peoples. Something like variability of response is true even regarding the facts of nature that natural science studies since, as many have pointed out, observation of such facts is pervasively theory-laden; and were that even not true of the facts that natural science studies, I have written repeatedly (as, for example, in my last reply to him) that values in the world are irreducible to the facts in the world that science studies, so there is no question that one’s understanding of them amounts to context-free generalizations such as those aspired to in some of the sciences.

In the face of so much incomprehension, it is impossible to summon the patience to respond to the details of his protests on the subject of disenchantment in the last third of his comment.

Details apart, he declares, “My position is that disenchantment is the wrong diagnosis and re-enchantment is the wrong prescription.” Then, in a curious admission that this criticism is premature and that he doesn’t understand what he is criticizing, he adds, “It would be a genuine step forward in this conversation for Bilgrami to say more about what he thinks enchantment actually looks like…”

That demand is impertinent. In my initial essay, I had promised to write a sequel, specifying in some detail the specific ways in which disenchantment has been a deep factor in the background of contemporary American culture and politics and how some intelligent attention paid to it, would provide for a more democratic and humane politics with a deeper and more integrated understanding of the relations between the economic hardships of large numbers of working people (something that is inseparable from the disenchantment of the world since a predatory form of capitalism arose complicitly with that disenchantment, as my genealogical diagnosis was intended to show) and their yearnings for more solidarity and community in their everyday lives. To develop these themes as I pledged to do in the sequel would be to say more about ‘enchantment’. That paper will be published sooner or later. I see no reason why I should time the rhythms of my intellectual productions to harmonize with Bruce Robbins’s premature articulations.

All I can say to him is that till I do publish it and before he goes off climbing to the beckoning recesses of the solar system, cuddling his animals (this twerpy imagery is his, not mine), he might consider reading something about disenchantment in America in the last century and more (though not about the ‘upcoming elections’) in some of the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman,…and reading more generally about the nature of value and ‘enchantment’ in some sections of Aristotle’s Ethics as well as some of Marx’s writing on alienation. It’s not as if I am the first or the only person who has written on these subjects.

Reply to Jager

Colin Jager raises many of the right issues in a sensitive and comprehending comment and explores them interestingly, emphasizing by the end more explicitly than I did, the Romanticist element in the “Radical Enlightenment”.

There are just a few points he makes that puzzle me, though it may just be that I have failed to see something that he has.

I am not quite sure what he means at the beginning of his piece when he says, “In the essay under discussion, Bilgrami criticizes the ease with which left-liberal thinkers translate enchantment into its supposedly more worldly (read:economic) causes.” This is said immediately after citing the remark that got Obama into all that trouble, so I assume that it means that I have criticized these ‘thinkers’ for their account of the religiosity among the working people of the country as some sort of escape from their difficult economic conditions. Whatever one thinks of such an account of someone’s religion, we should be careful about calling what is accounted for, ‘enchantment’. That would be to equate enchantment with religion, something I carefully refrained from doing in the essay that is being discussed. For one thing, I have argued that disenchantment came about as a result of certain orthodox religious positions aligning themselves with certain metaphysical interpretations of the new science as well as with commercial interests. It is quite wrong to think that there is a complete lack of piety in the history of disenchantment, wrong even, to think that enchantment must always be more pious and religious than its opposite. In fact, enchantment is something that one might hope for despite being a secularist and an atheist, as I had declared myself to be. It does not even have to be ‘spiritual’ and is not in my own understanding of it, though I don’t recoil from the word ‘spiritual’ as many, who are keen to be on display with their thoroughly Enlightenment commitments, are.

I can see why Jager might not have bothered to be too careful in his use of ‘enchantment’ in the sentence I have cited –after all, the main point he is making is that someone in certain familiar contemporary circumstances might seek in religion what enchantment, at its deepest, makes possible, especially when there is very little else that makes it possible. I just wanted to make sure that Jager in making a theoretical survey of the issues is not, in his own voice, making the crude equation –a kind of synonymy– of enchantment with religion and spirituality (in the way that Justin Smith, for instance, does in his comment in this symposium).

Jager is, of course, right that I find the tendency to account for a people’s religiosity simply as some sort of ‘opiate’ in conditions of economic deprivation, too simple. And he is right too that my reason for finding it so is that it does not take seriously enough the first-person or agential point of view of the religious person.

On the other hand, I have not said that social or economic conditions are entirely irrelevant. In fact, in my essay I had said that it is unsurprising that religion and church-going should be so pervasive in American society where for so many years there has been so little by way of an entrenched labour movement, so little by way of community and solidarity that is provided in the ordinary life of working people by union halls, for instance, as is traditionally found in European nations for almost a century. It may well be that his absence of ‘social democratic’ traditions is the most central fact in an explanation of the differential between United States and Europe in the matter of church-going. I don’t really doubt that if I lived in the heart of Nebraska and earned fifty thousand dollars a year and had a wife and three children, and had the upbringing and education of a person in these circumstances, that I would go to church. I certainly wouldn’t go to the opera, as I do. Or read the books I do. There are not likely to be many other places than the church which organized things so as to be a centre for meaningful social relations that I could go to. As I had pointed out in my essay, Robert Putnam was right to say that people by and large do seek meaningful associations and for me that is an essential part of secular enchantment, of finding value in the world which one inhabits, a point that is missed if one takes my appeal to enchantment to be restricted to nature in some self-standing sense and my qualms about disenchantment to be exclusively ecological qualms. Putnam was only wrong to focus on the recreational in elaborating his point, since that is the very sphere, as Thoreau pointed out long ago in a passage that I quoted in my essay, that distracts one from the more genuinely personal and politically far-reaching aspects of community and solidarity, the very aspects that are essential to an unalienated life.

I say all this by way of saying that though economic considerations are important for me in the explanation of religion in American society, they must be filtered through what Jager calls the ‘feel’ of disenchantment, the first personal point of view of agency and experience, for which Marx rightly mobilized the term ‘alienation’ –an aspect of Marx that was deliberately silenced by Marxist theorists like Althusser who stressed the material conditions in just the ways Jager sees as falling into implausible notions of ‘false consciousness’ when it comes to explaining religious life.

There is much more to say on these subjects and I say it in the sequel “Democracy and Disenchantment” which elaborates the ideas presented in long footnotes in the last section of the essay in Critical Inquiry.

In a quick dialectical turn, he then shifts the subject to something not unrelated: the materialist denial of the relevance of culture to social explanation. He describes this as critique of ‘literary thinking’, citing some work that, in his gloss, hysterically inveighs against the intellectual legacy of the New Left. I have not read that work and have no idea whether it is as outlandish as he seems to suggest it is. If how he presents them is what things have come to, then intellect is rather at an ebb.

I suppose, given the views I have expressed in my initial essay and these responses to commentary on it, I should allow myself to be counted as one of the more sober descendants of the New Left. Even so, there are things in his description of this legacy, from which I would firmly demur. One thing he reports them saying is: “Having abandoned political movements and organizations, the Left is left with ‘culture’ and with the idea that working at the level of culture is itself political.”

Well, working at the level of culture is indeed itself partly political (because you can’t separate politics from culture entirely) though it is certainly not all there is to the political.

But why anybody committed to the importance for the political of the themes of alienation and disenchantment and culture, should be seen as having abandoned the need for political movements is hard for me to fathom. I would have thought that in our time and in our place, social and political movements are pretty much alone in offering us public and reassuring sites where one feels one is not daft and always thinking the unthinkable. Certainly the sites of the media, of educational institutions from a relatively early age, of the workplaces one is very likely to find oneself in, make almost any serious form of Left thinking seem unthinkable, dismissed as being from another era to be ridiculed now for its irrelevance.

I wouldn’t want to deny some of what these authors have said –that there are outré post-modernist literary tendencies that may have come out of some aspects of the New Left. But there are also utterly arcane tendencies in my own subject of analytic philosophy, which has sometimes made a sordid, careerist game out of ridiculing post-modernism, just as the authors Jager cites seem to have done. One should never be surprised by nor underestimate the capacity of academics in almost any field of work for raising unnecessary dust, for avoiding the deep and fundamental issues of their subjects by conducting in coteries, endless discussions –ridden with invented jargon — of narrow and pointless themes.

What I am much more surprised to find is that people are constantly debating and making controversial what seems obvious: that the legacy of the New Left cannot and has not (anymore than the Old Left) abandoned the urgent need for popular political movements. There is no incompatibility whatever between so-called ‘literary thinking’ and movements. The largest political movement in Britain of the last fifty years, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’ was led by an historian who wrote books on Romanticism and on Blake, the very figures that I stress in my initial essay in a roll call of heroes (and which Jager himself stresses even more than I do), the very figures, that is, who shape the ‘literary thinking’ that went into the Radical Enlightenment. All that the legacy of the New Left insists on is that you cannot proceed as if culture and, more generally, ideas (what Robbins strangely has called ‘epistemology’ and Mamdani calls ‘culture talk’) are epiphenomena. The history of what the entire Left, New or Old, opposes is full of cultural and intellectual (‘ideological’) justifications for the wrongs they have perpetrated: predatory capitalism, imperialism, racism, fascism,..have all appealed to cultural notions and yes, even liberal ideals in many cases, to justify what they have done. There is no opposing them in the movements you start or join without confronting them at the level of culture as well as of politics and the economy. It is not even as if these levels can be so easily disentangled. So: I deny the most basic assumptions of this controversy that Jager introduces when he introduces these authors’ extravagant charges against the New Left’s influence and ‘literary thinking’.

Jager says he finds something interesting in those authors’ claim that the New Left legacy as well as contemporary conservatism come together in some sense: in being anti-statist and individualistic. The only reason why this claim is interesting is because it is so wide of the mark. One can be anti-statist for more than one reason, and the reasons may be so different, that it is hardly worth using the same label to describe what they are reasons for. I myself don’t know of anyone influenced by the New Left who would be anti-statist in the sense that she would deny that Bill Clinton was wrong to sign the welfare bill, or who would deny that the United States should have a single payer system of health insurance… And I don’t know of anyone influenced by the New Left who would deny that the state in this country has for decades been perpetrating one of the most scandalous economic crimes in history by subsidizing a vast, bandit corporate sector with public monies spent on the Pentagon. Now, in the first two examples, they are pro-statist and in the third, example they are anti-statist. Equally, I don’t myself know any contemporary conservative who thinks that Clinton should not have signed that bill or that there should be a national health service. Nor do I know any contemporary conservative who thinks that the state should make deep cuts to the Pentagon. Here, in the very opposite direction, there is respectively, anti- and pro-statism. What does this show? That, once you disambiguate what is meant by statism, once you realize that there is no single understanding of what it is to be pro- or anti- the state, there is no paradox of the sort that Jager finds interesting –of contemporary conservatism and the New Left descendants coming together. Things are literally as simple as that. Those authors, if Jager represents them correctly, are so keen to indict the New Left that they haven’t stopped to think about the way they use their own terms such as ‘statism’. Since I feel some confidence that Jager will agree with me about this, I will leave it to him to do a similar exercise with the term ‘individualism’.

It’s gratifying to have in Jager’s concluding pages, such a sympathetic and accurate statement of the sort of genealogical analysis I tried to give in the paper. I hope it won’t come off as too fastidious if I, even so, mention one or two very small points that are misleading in that elegant summary.

The word ‘deists’ is not quite sufficient in marking out the dissenters I had made my late seventeenth century protagonists. There were deists on both sides, orthodoxy and dissent. This continued in later years too. So, for example, Voltaire was a deist and very much on the orthodox side of things on the subjects that I had made my focus. The crucial difference, given my focus, was that the dissenters wanted to resist the forming of a conception of nature that would remove from it all the elements that might prevent it from degenerating into the notion of ‘natural resources’. This, they felt, was the fault-line, the beginning of something that had great fall-out for political economy and culture. To say this is to say something far more specific than the term ‘deist’ or ‘deism’ marked. This is a very small point and things are corrected if Jager simply changes his words from ‘the pantheism of the deists’ to ‘the pantheism of some deists’.

Finally, a somewhat larger correction. Jager says, “For as I read Bilgrami, the indictment is two-fold. First, definitions of rationality that ignored or downplayed its ‘cultural surround’ stripped the world of meaning and thereby created the need for enchantment—a need that sometimes manifests itself in violent, exclusivist ways, other times in forms of retreat and withdrawal. And second, such definitions of rationality have made it impossible for Left intellectuals to understand enchantment as anything other than irrationalism and magical thinking. And so they continue to be surprised by its staying power, for they are unable to understand it as doing cognitive and cultural work.”

There is something both wrong and right in this. It is wrong in that it gives the impression that I have something against a narrow notion of ‘rationality’. I don’t at all. It would be splendid if we could restrict the notion of rationality to deductive, inductive, and decision-theoretic rationality supplemented by a carefully worked out notion of ‘coherence’ for both beliefs and values. Then we could use terms other than ‘rationality’ to laud the other intellectual and cognitive virtues, of which there are many. This would help a lot in unconfusing things. But, alas, historically, things have been much more confused. As I pointed out in that essay, ‘rationality’ was used in much broader senses than these.

Historians of seventeenth and eighteenth century America have written of how some settlers who argued that it might be best to live side by side with the native peoples of the land rather than slaughter them, were said by most of the other settlers, to be ‘irrational’. (Not merely wrong, but ‘irrational’.) Slave-owning racism claimed right for its position by claiming that slaves were not ‘persons’ because they lacked ‘rational’ capacities. Imperialists justified their actions by saying they were partly there to make natives more ‘rational’. And so on, and on. And what I was pointing to was that on their lips and pens this term ‘rational’ in these uses meant something much broader and richer than the narrowly demarcated meanings of ‘rational’ that I would welcome stipulating. The version of the richer notion of rationality that was my particular focus was the ideological claim that ‘natives’ in the colonized lands (of India, for instance) lacked ‘rationality’ because they had not yet been educated out of their primitive prejudices to take the right predatory attitude towards nature and see it as nothing much more than natural resources for indefinite profit and gain. This, of course, came a little later. It was in an earlier period in the late seventeenth century that the ground was cleared for these later justifications of empire by the metaphysical interpretations given to the new science, interpretations which saw these ‘primitive prejudices’ I just mentioned as issuing in part from a metaphysics that they were keen to make obsolete.

So I repeat that I am not against the narrow notion of rationality. I am for it. I am against the rich (or what I called ‘thick’) notion of rationality. And so were the dissenters, the only difference being that for them the opposition came from a point of view that took the world to be sacralized, whereas I would hope in our time that the opposition to such rationality would come from a more secular point of view regarding the world, a point of view that I have tried to describe more innocuously in terms of a world suffused with value, even though there is no divine source of the value.

Despite this correction, I think the general direction of Jager’s passage that I quoted is fine. He sees the point that enchantment, however secular, will always be viewed as magical and unscientific by a certain blinkered intellectual stance. What he misrepresents is why the stance is too blinkered to see that there is nothing magical about enchantment, at least as I have presented it. It is blinkered not because it takes rationality to be too narrow, but because it takes it to be unscientific to say, as I do, that the world contains things that natural science cannot study (value, for instance). That is a narrowness in metaphysical or ontological commitments, not a narrowness in the notion of rationality. As I have said before –in the earlier reply to Robbins– there is nothing unscientific about saying that there is more that exists in the world than falls within the purview of natural science. It would only be unscientific to say it, if there was some science which contained in it the proposition that science has comprehensive coverage of the world. But that is not a proposition in any science. So denying that proposition cannot possibly be unscientific. It is not good science, but bad philosophy which claims such coverage for science.

Reply to Smith

Justin Smith writes about Spinoza rather than the seventeenth century English dissenters I wrote about. He says that, if Jonathan Israel on Spinoza is anything to go by (and apparently he must be something to go by because his book has the title “Radical Enlightenment” which figures prominently in my essay), the sorts of things I say about my dissenters must be less about their philosophical ideas and more about the reception of those ideas. He is pushing at an open door. He must have skipped the part of my essay where I say, at some length, that the ideal of rationality that was ‘thickened’ in that period was a product of various worldly alliances formed between groups of interests that exploited certain metaphysical ideas, and equally the dissenters exploited opposing metaphysical ideas. It was avowedly, therefore, all about the reception of ideas, about how ideas are used by certain forces that are emerging in a period of history and other opposing ideas that are used by the resistance to this. (Boyle’s case is especially interesting because, if intellectual historians such as J. R Jacob and Margaret Jacob are right, in his case the propounder of the ideas may himself have been involved fairly explicitly in the alliances that I had mentioned. Interesting, though that is, it still does not mean that the point is not a point about reception. After all when one participates in the use of one’s own philosophical ideas for some extra-philosophical purposes, one participates in the reception of one’s own ideas.)

He says that Boyle did not have contempt for nature and tells us of his piety. He must have also skipped the part where I said that religion, piety, faith, and so on were crucial to the thick notion of rationality that was being forged in this period. It was, as I put it, an alliance between religion, a scientific society, and commercial interests. Having contempt for nature or not having contempt for nature is not the point. Seeing nature as making normative demands on you that inhibits a certain systematic form of extractive economy, is the point. Smith says nothing to counter the sorts of things that intellectual historians have said to implicate Boyle on the side that I placed him in this ideological dispute. He merely points to his lack of contempt for nature and his piety, which, as I say, cuts no ice.

He says that he “is not convinced by me that representatives of the ‘Radical Enlightenment’ were resisting what we would later come to recognize as the scourge of scientific rationalism…” He must have skipped the part in my first reply to Robbins (which was, I believe, circulated by the editors of this website to the commentators) where I said that it was an explicitly stated anxiety of the various parties in the worldly alliance of interests, that the metaphysics favoured by the English dissenters’ (the representatives of the “Radical Enlightenment” in my narrative, if not Jonathan Israel’s ) was a central element in their ‘enthusiasm’ (which I there pointed out was a term of opprobrium at the time) that might upset the alliance’s aspirations for a certain culture of the propertied classes and a certain form of political economy that I presented with at least some minimal detail. The articulations of this anxiety are well documented by Christopher Hill in The World Turned Upside Down, and again by Margaret Jacob, as well as others. If Smith is not convinced of the threat and the resistance that the dissenters posed, it would be good to have him offer some evidence that shows this articulated anxiety about the resistance that the ‘enthusiasts’ were posing, to be misplaced. He concludes that these debates about nature were projections backwards on to Newton, Boyle, etc some centuries later, an astonishing thing to say if you know the dates of one of the most fervent debaters, John Toland. The plain fact is that someone like Toland (and there were others) was prescient about just the sorts of things that we describe, in our own much later time, when we speak of the ‘disenchantment’ that first set in in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. That fact is quite sufficient for the purposes of my analysis.

He says “It has proven much more difficult than once was hoped for by the main current of the Enlightenment to believe things on the basis of evidence, but neither the main current nor the countercurrent, if there ever was such a thing, ever held that we should do anything but that…” The scepticism expressed in “if there was ever such a thing” amounts to a scepticism about the detailed evidence provided by intellectual histories one can find in writers such as Jacobs, Israel, and J.G.A. Pockock, to name just three, none of whom are idiots, and until I read something by Smith to match this scholarship, I will stick with the instruction I have gained from my reading of them. As for the rest of this sentence, he must have skipped the passages in which I say that the orthodox Enlightenment and the “counter-currents” were each just as committed to the same scientific method and scientific laws as the other, and the dispute was not about a methodological and scientific commitment to evidence nor to any scientific laws but rather about a very basic metaphysical assumption. The sentence concludes: “…I fail to see the genealogical link between Spinoza and the Kansas creationists”. I too fail to see it. To react to disenchantment with a desperately brittle conservative Christianity is not likely to have an intellectual genealogy in the ideas of Spinoza. If some ideas (which fell out of favour) might have prevented disenchantment (had they not), they do not become genealogical antecedents to reactions to disenchantment –not by logic, not by dialectic, not by leaps of intellectual imagination. Smith must have in mind to criticize some argument other than the one I gave.

He says, “When I hear bin Laden’s messages, I do not hear a ‘clear and precise’ statement of political aims”. Osama bin Laden has said on more than one occasion that Islamists should wage acts of terror against America until there is a just solution in Palestine and until American corporations are out of Saudi Arabia. Smith should say what he finds unclear in this. Bin Laden has said a lot of other repugnant, fanatical things about ‘infidels’ and so on. These may distract one from the political demands he has made, but to be distracted from something is not to have that thing rendered unclear. Some may also find bin Laden’s political demands to be fake (I don’t but people in America who are self-servingly complacent about Israeli oppression of the Palestinians or about the effects of American corporations on foreign peoples, do), they might find his political demands to be a mere front for his other fanatical Islamist interests. Even if, for the sake of argument, we say they are right, to make fake demands is not to make obscure demands.

What I confess to finding obscure myself is Smith’s extemporary excursion about his adult life in Russia and the Balkans.

In his concluding words, he says that we should focus on the North-South divide instead of the East/West divide or the Muslim/Non-Muslim Divide. I didn’t really use the term ‘the East’. And ‘Orientalism’” in the canonical work in which it is discussed so prominently, is not intended to mark the East so much as the Islamic Middle-East. That apart, what he must mean by his remark (though I could be wrong in thinking so) is that issues of global justice which so much define the North-South divide are more important than the issues I was engaging in when I wrestled with Buruma and Margalit. He must have skipped the sentence at the end of my initial essay in which I said that issues of global justice are more important than the admittedly important question of disenchantment. I am said to be united with Margalit and Buruma and Huntington in taking too seriously the Muslim/Non-Muslim divide. It was a central point in and motivation for writing my essay that Buruma and Margalit (and indeed Huntington) had made too much of the Muslim/Non-Muslim divide and that they were cold warriors in that divide, a cold war I found distasteful and dangerous. Curious how opposing some authors for some of their attitudes can be read as uniting one with them on those attitudes.

It’s fine to be a highly critical reader but not if one is a highly skipping reader.

Reply to Levine

There is a very attractive sobriety in Levine’s intellectual diagnosis of Buruma and Margarita’s failings. I wish I could have displayed the same restraint when I wrote about them. The diagnosis is for the most part quite convincing to me.

A couple of things.

The idea of internal or immanent critique that Levine expounds so clearly, whether it comes from his, as he calls it, ‘Left Hegelian’ position or some other (let’s not forget that even someone like Burke preached it), is exactly right for revealing how capacious the philosophical span of the Enlightenment is. That capaciousness for reflexive conflict within the notion of specific elaborations of the concept of reason can be found even within the span of individual philosophers of the Enlightenment. The subversive effect of his own notion of the sublime on Kant’s systematic thought on Reason or the notion of his own notion of alienation on Marx’s materialism, are both examples of this. I’ll say a bit about the latter in a moment.

It is, of course, well known that Horkheimer and Adorno wrote in depth both about disenchantment and about the instrumentalizing tendencies within the concept of reason in the orthodox Enlightenment. Levine has my protagonists, the Early Modern dissenters and Gandhi, line up with Horkheimer and Adorno on these themes. And then, when he faults Buruma and Margalit for ignoring all these figures and directing their criticisms instead on the German romantics, he seems to be keen on placing a great distance between these figures and the German romantic tradition. That, I think, is a failure of nerve in the face of a familiar sort of bullying about German romanticism, typified in the clichéd prejudices that Buruma and Margalit voice against it. I think that there is much in Horkheimer, that is continuous with the German Romantic tradition, if one stepped far back enough to get a large enough perspective and held sturdily and patiently to the task of providing all the necessary qualifications. These continuities with Romanticism hold equally true of Gandhi and the Early Modern dissenters, as Jager observes in his comment.

But there is a peril here that we always have to look at in the face. And when we do, it understandably induces a neurosis. We have all been made so rightly jittery by the ghastly nationalist and fascist outcomes of modern European history that may have had some indirect intellectual origins in some aspects of Romantic thought, that we often lose nerve in just this way; and I must admit that my reason for leapfrogging back to the Early modern period was precisely out of a desire to avoid the clutter of having to deal with this neurosis, a neurosis that afflicts me too. But it is one thing to make one’s argument avoiding the mess in one’s path –that is to say, avoiding the entire German romantic affinity with and mediation of the Early Modern figures with Horkheimer, Adorno, and eventually Gandhi—another thing to deny that there is any such mediation or affinity.

I’d like to take the chance here to say something that I had left hanging in my comment on Jager who had written of how some critics had coupled American conservatism with New Left-influenced “Literary Thinking” for both being ‘anti-statist’ and ‘individualist’. I had said there that there was an exercise of the sort I performed on the term ‘statist’ which needed to be performed on the term ‘individualist’. About ‘statist’, I had claimed that a relatively straightforward disambiguation of the term of the kind that I provided in my comment on Jager, would have the effect of showing that it was too quick to make such a coupling. And I now think that Levine’s comment helps to bring out how a similar disambiguation with a similar effect may be possible for the term ‘individualist’ as well.

The critique of instrumental reason by a certain Left intellectual tradition he expounds, introduces into Leftist thought an experiential dimension that cannot leave the individual out. Two examples: No notion of alienation (a notion central to the critique of instrumental reason) can have an elaboration that leaves out the experience of individuals. This is also true of the notion of ‘creativity’ or ‘making’ as contrasted with ‘use’ or ‘means, (a contrast again essential to making the critique of instrumental reason). Marx understood all this very well and it subverted his materialism from within, a subversion that could only be denied by something like Althusser’s cynical ploy of separating out the so-called ‘Early’ and ‘Late’ Marx. If Althusser is wrong (and it is demonstrable that he is), and existential notions (such as ‘alienation’) pervaded Marx’s corpus, early and late, then there is scope for just the sort of internal critique that Levine presents.

But this means that we have two notions of ‘individualist’. The one that the ‘literary thinking’ that is the legacy of the New Left can embrace as emerging out of this immanent critique or subversion in Marx, the other more familiar one that is embraced by conservative American thought which, because it is so familiar, I won’t take the space to spell out here. The disambiguation ensures that there is no plausible coupling of these two ideologies.

But even though there is no coupling of that sort, what I think is true is that there are individual thinkers in the Enlightenment whose philosophical span was capacious enough to contain both these notions of ‘individualist’. Mill is the most prominent example.

I should just add that if this sort of disambiguation is something that can be so simply done for the term ‘individual’, there ought to be one in the offing for its alter term, ‘community’, too. When one thinks of how Winstanley intended the idea of community and then mines the contemporary communitarian’s idea, it is hard to believe that there isn’t some mirror image of the disambiguation of ‘individualist’ at hand.

In these last remarks I have come some distance from Levine’s particular focus. But it is the stimulus of his comments that have brought me here.

Reply to Mannikalingam

There is a very complicated, unnecessarily complicated, set of dialectical moves in this comment and I don’t have much confidence that I have all the details of the argument in control, or at any rate in as much control as their author has on it, which may not be complete either.

Let me say a few things that struck me as salient.

Mannikalingam has me saying: “…Buruma and Margalit slip too quickly from cultural critique of the West to the resort to violence on the part of Islamist terrorists.” He then comments: “He believes that the step –from culture to violence—is contingent on other political factors. The first step –sharing a set of (cultural) values need not lead to agreement on whether or not (and how) to resort to violence. However, while sympathetic to Mamdani’e efforts to view violence as a response to the politics of the West, he disagrees with Mamdani’s dismissal of the cultural elements in such a linkage. But if violence is only contingently linked to politics, then why can’t politics be only contingently linked to cultural critique?”

From my point of view, this is a bit of a mess. My objection to Buruma and Margalit was not that the resort to violence depends on contingent ‘political factors’. I took no view as to what prompted the resort to violence on the part of Islamic terrorists. I should explain the point I had made about the ‘contingent’ links since it is not visible in this exposition at all.

Buruma and Margalit had critical things to say about a certain conception of the West as well as about the dehumanizing violence of the Occidentalists (especially the Islamist ones). I had pointed out the extraordinarily detailed overlap, virtual identity I would say, of the conception they present and Gandhi’s critique of the Enlightenment. And since Gandhi had deep commitments to non-violence, I wondered if Buruma and Margalit could point to anything more than a contingent link between the two targets of their criticism.

There is nothing in this that was intended to suggest that the violence was contingent upon ‘political factors’ that were independent of the Occidentalist’s cultural critique of the West. In fact, I had said rather clearly in my criticism of Mamdani, which Mannikalingam also discusses, that culture and politics should not be pulled apart and should be seen as more integrated than Mamdani does. I had tried to show how exactly it was more integrated by tracing the role of a ‘thick’ notion of scientific rationality in the justifications of colonization, among other things. Though Buruma and Margalit seemed to me to dig deeper than Mamdani in recognizing the need for such an integration of culture and politics, as contemporary cold warriors of a certain recognizable sort they botched the integration in the particular subject they were writing about when they failed to notice the role of the cultural and intellectual attitudes generated by “scientific rationality” (their own favoured ideal) in the political actions of Western imperial nations. Some considerable part in my diagnosis of why they should have failed to notice this turned on giving the intellectual history by which the notion of scientific rationality was more complicated and ambiguous (and therefore, ambivalent) than they were presenting it to be.

However, despite this inaccuracy, Mannikalingam does raise good questions for me in a morass of dialectic. One such is: might it be that Buruma and Margalit want to say that the Islamists hate the West for what the West is, whereas I present them too much as hating the West for what the West has done to Muslim peoples during colonization and after de-colonization. I think there is a real point to the distinction he makes between hating someone for what someone is and for what someone does. Racism is an example of the former. But it is not the only example. One might also hate someone for some of their fundamental commitments, which is a more agentially conceived idea of what they are, and yet does not collapse into what they do. Not all agency lies in action. It is present too in the judgements and commitments one forms from one’s ethical perceptions and deliberations. A certain kind of religious fanaticism, certainly found in the history of Islam and Christianity, hates the ‘infidel’, the heretic, etc., for their fundamental commitments. This is for obvious reasons very different from racial hatred or hatred of another caste. For one thing, as I said, the hate is for their commitments rather than for the properties that they have by birth and descent. And that is why the latter hatred (found in Hinduism, for instance) does not have any great role for conversion in the way that the former does. To put it in slogans, ‘You can never be my brother’, is the casteist attitude within Hinduism. ‘You must be my brother’ has often been the Christian or Islamic religious fanatic’s attitude. It is an inclusive attitude rather than the exclusionary one that is found in caste hatred. And the ‘must’ has historically sometimes been enforced by violence –though I suspect the terrorist violence of the religious fanatic today, if and when it comes from a hatred for what one is (for one’s commitments), rather than what one has done, is likely to come not due to fantasies of conversion but rather due to a realistic perception that there is not going to be any conversion.

So much for the distinction that he makes, which I think is perfectly useful to have explicitly presented. What I don’t quite get is why I am supposed to be saying that there is something mutually exclusive about Islamists hating the West for what they are committed to (let’s say, freedom and democracy and the louche metropolitan life-style and so on, as the standard portrayal of the terrorist goes these days) and hating them for the harms the West has done to Muslim populations in the colonies and then the ex-colonies and even for the racism it has shown to the migrant Muslim populations in its own midst. I don’t want to deny that there is hate of the first kind and I do want to assert that there is hate of the second kind. Why can’t I say both? Both are true. And, hard though it is to discern, it would be good to get an accurate measure of the extent to which each is true. John Esposito’s and Dalia Mogahed’s recently published Gallup surveys in “Who speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think” (Gallup Press, 2008) is a quite conscientious effort to discern it.

I suspect that some of the great tide of complicated inferential links and distinctions that this comment on me makes would subside once it is made clear that I think that this distinction in the ‘hatred’, though true, is not mutually exclusive. That is not necessarily to say that the hatred must be overdetermined, though it may well be for many. It could also just be that different groups of Islamists respectively hate ‘the West’ for two different reasons: some for what their commitments are and others for what they have done to them.

Though the comment gets me wrong when it has me saying that the violence of a fringe in Muslim populations is dependent on ‘political factors’ that are only contingently linked to their cultural critique of the West, a question does remain whether the violence is intrinsic in some way to their integrated cultural and political critique of the West, in a way that it is manifestly not in Gandhi? On this question, Mannikalingam’s guess is as good as mine. These are very hard questions to decide. All I can say is that I could find nothing in Buruma and Margalit that demonstrated that it is intrinsic. And they (and Mannikalingam) would be reprehensibly cavalier if they simply asserted without argument (without a careful statement of which aspect of the cultural and political critique has intrinsic to it the violence in question). It is one thing to say that an institution, the highly centralized state, say, has violence built into its structures. That too needs careful argument but we all know of some impressive care that has gone into providing such arguments. It is harder to provide anything similar when one is talking about individuals and their beliefs. Of course one could a) say familiar things like: ‘ they feel so desperately helpless in the face of longstanding and continuing oppression, misery, racism, ….that they resort to violence’. Or one could more simply b) quote the spectacular announcements by bin Laden and others that violence should be visited on America or Britain…. The first gives causal explanations of the violence by citing a motive for violence. The second cites avowals and therefore gives expressive evidence of the intention to commit violence. Both are independent of the cultural and political critique of the West, and therefore are perfectly compatible with the claim that there is no intrinsic connection between violence and such a cultural and political critique.

There are some scattered (that is to say, scattered within the specious attempt at systematic dialectic) but genuinely wise remarks in Mannikalingam’s comment about the practical pitfalls of stressing as much as I do the integration of politics and culture; the chief one being that one need not try and change the entire integrated political and cultural set of attitudes that the imperial (and neo-imperial) West shows towards Islam in order to lessen the harmful effects of the cold war against Islam. My own view is that efforts should be made at all levels — piecemeal, as well as more integrated resistance to the cold war and its effects. And if I said something to suggest that nothing short of a wholesale overturning of an entire integrated ideology is good enough for me, that is just an academic’s or intellectual’s failure to say more practically wise and qualified things in his or her effort to give integrated theoretical accounts of the sort that academics and intellectuals often give. I am glad to be cautioned and corrected on this.

Reply to Mehta

After a very sensible presentation of my efforts to show the ‘licit derivation’ of certain political and cultural outcomes from a properly ‘thick’ notion of scientific rationality, Uday Mehta turns to the question of the intrinsic links between violence and certain principles of the state in the Western tradition of political thought since the seventeenth century. This is a sly inversion of Mannikalingam’s interest (on behalf of the authors of Occidentalism) in the question of whether there is an intrinsic link between violence and the cultural critique of the West by some Occidentalists.

Mehta’s approach to his question is to notice first the role that war (the war of all against all) gets to play in the starting premise of so much social contract theory. To contract into a state so as to subdue the propensity for violence in us, he says, in some indirect sense reveals that the state, so conceived, is constituted by the very concept of war and violence. In such a picture, opposition to violence is merely the pursuit of one’s survival and security. If it were not for our instinct for survival and security, violence and war would be morally permissible. There is no more principled and moral certification of non-violence to be had in this tradition. In fact the term ‘non-violence’ is the wrong one to describe the outcome of such a contractarian argument. ‘Peace’ or ‘peacability’ is better. And this is proof that peace and non-violence are not the same thing. Gandhi, the great advocate of non-violence, rejects this entire framework. Violence for him is wrong on more directly moral grounds. As for the state, the outcome of the framework’s argument, Gandhi rejects that too, in what must therefore be seen as a rejection of politics itself since the concept of a state, so derived, is constituted by a permissible violence (the violence denoted in the originary premise of this contractualist derivation), which is put aside to satisfy the counter-propensity in all of us for peace, but never replaced by non-violence.

This argument is an interesting one. I will say something from an angle slightly adjacent to it in a way that I hope will be useful.

What is the nature of the disagreement between Gandhi and the contractualist tradition that defines the modern West’s political sensibility? Mehta suggests it is the difference between the moral and the merely prudential, the latter lacking the prestige of principle possessed by the former. I wonder if there is not something more underlying than that.

One difficulty with resting where Mehta does is that prudence is arguably not outside of the realm of the moral. As Sidgwick first suggested, there is some symmetry in the consideration that one’s prudence shows to one’s future self (and even one’s other self or side), and the consideration that one’s altruism shows to others. There is principle in both, even if the principle in prudence is not obvious and self-proclamatory. Prudence is not reducible to utility or instrumentality, even if it is at the other end from altruism. Thus, for example, even though it is an abstraction that one appeals to when one argues that a war should be fought today for peace in the future (prudence), a concern of this particular sort for one’s future self and future generations can sometimes be a moral concern.

Now, rotate the angle of vision just a little.

The contractualist framework, as Mehta presents it, begins with a propensity in us (for war and violence), cites a counter-propensity in us (for survival and security) and proposes the contractual outcome of an institution (a state) which is defined by the propensity to subdue the former with force on behalf of the latter.

It is propensities all the way down. Where is the place for morals in a field of propensities?

One may think that the idea that we contract into the state is where we make a moral commitment and go beyond our propensities? But nothing in the picture tells us that we should not treat the contract as Freud treats the idea of conscience: second order drives to curb first order drives which latter would destroy us if the former were not present. Nothing more to conscience but propensities at the second-order, nothing more to the ‘contract’ either.

There is much more to be developed in this argument, which I cannot possibly do here, but my instinctive sense is that Mehta’s argument which turns on distinguishing morality from prudence cannot be his resting point and he must go further to expose these other aspects of the contractarian framework. The real challenge to pose to the contractarian is not how do we go from prudence to morality (that distance may not in the first place be as great as Mehta thinks) but the same challenge we should pose to Freud, how do we get moral commitment in when the premises and conclusion cite only propensities, drives, tendencies.

{Before I leave this subject, an aside: I am following Mehta in his characterization of the contractualist tradition as having starting-points that appeal to propensities and counter-propensities (for war, for survival…). There are late developments in the tradition, such as for instance in Rawls, where the starting points are entirely different. Here the considerations are more complicated, whether you rest where Mehta does or push on further, as I think one should.}

His comment concludes with a defence of Gandhi against Robbins’s charge that to decline modernist development and ‘improvement’, as Gandhi did, is to be ‘unspeakably complacent.’ I would like to briefly explore another somewhat different appeal than Mehta’s to the contrast between the contractarian ideal and Gandhi’s thinking to fortify this defence against this charge.

In my Critical Inquiry essay (and since then in a forthcoming book) I situate Gandhi in an Early Modern radical tradition of the seventeenth century rather than see him, as many, including Robbins, do: an anti-modernist. There is a point in this difference that goes as follows. As I say in these writings, many of the freethinkers of the late seventeenth century that I invoked viewed their scientific dissent as being driven by and continuous with many of the social and political ideas of the radical sectaries of the mid-seventeenth century during the remarkable revolutionary period of the 1640s in England. One way to bring home the parallel between Gandhi’s ideas on what was good and not good for India and the ideas of these earlier radicals, is to see them both as implicitly resisting (in the case of Gandhi) and preempting (in the case of the seventeenth century radicals), a fairly well known and well articulated and well studied intellectual scenario –found in the details of a tradition going from John Locke to Robert Nozick– in political thought, which goes roughly like this. (I will stress different aspects of the scenario than Mehta does, but it is the same tradition.)

Suppose we start in the state of nature and suppose that there are as yet no policies or laws to live by nor is there any sort of institution of property. Then suppose that some of us join and come up with an agreement with which we resolve to keep faith, an agreement about rules for the private appropriation of property out of the common. We agree that if someone comes upon a stretch of ground, fences it, and registers it with a primitive form of bureau that we set up, then it becomes his or hers. We say to ourselves that this may be only done if, by doing so, no other is made worse off than they hitherto were, on the grounds that if one were to hire them at wages which enable them to live better, they would be better off than they were in the state of nature.

The system of enclosures, which began to set in so deeply in society in the seventeenth century period and led eventually to thoroughly predatory attitudes towards nature and its bounty, is thus theoretically consolidated and justified by a familiar social-contractualist justificatory scenario of this kind. And it is precisely that system and the germ of this political theory that the radicals of that period protested, and these attitudes towards nature which transformed it into the idea of natural resources that the somewhat later scientific dissenters protested. So Gandhi can be seen, then, as implicitly arguing something, again roughly, like this: The economy and incipient liberal ideas of governance thus emerging from the contractualist tradition has an opportunity cost. Because the land is thus privatized we cannot set up a communal system for working the land in common. Thus, even though we agree that we are all better off than we were in the state of nature, it is still perfectly possible for us to say that we are worse off than we would have been had the private economy not been established. That is the reason to situate Gandhi’s ideas in the dissenting thought and the politically revolutionary ideas of an Early Modern period –to provide such a counterfactual form of critique of a longstanding tradition of political thought that consolidates in contractualist theory, notions of governance and political economy, deriving from views of nature and matter, asking us to see them as having a necessity and inevitability, which, if the critique is right, they do not possess. Gandhi precisely insisted that they did not possess it and found the ideas of eager ‘modernizers’ all around him in India, quite uncompulsory. Mehta, with his own work on Locke on the state of nature, would find such a counterfactualist argument for the relevance of Early Modern radicalism and dissent, quite congenial.

Akeel Bilgrami
Mexico City
September 2008

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