Why Indian Secularists do not think but talk?

I want to go deeper into the claim of my earlier post that Shabnum Tejani s and Neera Chandhoke s of this world do not think but merely talk. In other words, is it possible to identify the problems with their accounts (that explicates more clearly why I say that they do not think) in such a way that it is susceptible to some sort of solution? If, indeed, we can show that such people do not think and we can show that their mistakes have some cognitive roots, then we can also provide additional explanations. In such a case, our answer would be richer and more complex than any other available at the market place.

1. Here is the first charge: they talk about certain domains of human endeavor as though they do have knowledge of these domains, whereas they do not know anything about that domain. I will first explain this charge before talking about the implications.

Consider one of the most common argumentative (and cognitive) strategies that many people in the social sciences use, when they want to criticize some position or the other. This consists of challenging the truth of the premises in an argument in order to show that (a) they disagree with the argument; (b) one could legitimately challenge the truth of the conclusions thereby; (c) in doing so, they are advancing knowledge of the subject matter. (This takes many forms and I give you three illustrations out of indefinitely many: Shabnum Tejani does it in the citation that Jakob used in his first post; Achin Vanaik used this in the Rethinking Religion in India conference while he spoke of a ‘logical theory’ in the domain of International Relations; Will Sweetman uses this in his published article in a journal to say that I am wrong because I presuppose Protestant Christianity as the model of religion to draw the conclusion that Hinduism is not a religion. I suggest you look at all three to discover how wide-spread and familiar this argument is. How often have you not heard people’s argument being dismissed on the grounds that one does not agree with their premises or assumptions or presuppositions?) As you can see, people use the following notions: ‘premises and conclusions’; ‘truth and derivation’; ‘drawing conclusions from certain premises’. All of these are studied in Logic and this constitutes the subject matter of formal logics.

If you read the first chapter in a book on ‘Introduction to Logic’ or attend the first class in the first year of a logic course, you learn about these notions. Almost one of the first things you learn is this: there is a fundamental asymmetry in the transmission of truth and falsity from premises to conclusions. Truth is transmitted from premises to conclusions but falsity is not; falsity is transmitted from the conclusion to premises but truth is not. (In both cases, we assume that valid rules of logical inferences are used.) That is to say, if your premises are true and you use valid rules of inference, then your conclusion is also true; if your conclusion is false and you use valid rules of inference then at least one of your premises is false. However, the other way does not hold: you could have false premises and yet draw true conclusions. The falsity of your premise does not make your conclusion false or the truth of your conclusion does not make all your premises (or even one of them) true. This is the nature of drawing conclusions in deductive logics. Because this is the first thing you learn in your logic course, I have also formulated in a simple language.

So, when people like Shabnums of this world enter the domain of logic (they are, after all, arguing using notions from formal logics), you expect them to know this. If they do not, they should not argue or criticize. They are not ordinary citizens who are arguing in a café but pretend to be intellectuals who are producing knowledge about the world. In the former case of café discussions, we can overlook logical mistakes; after all, it is the beer that talks. In the latter case, we cannot. These people are public intellectuals and teachers; they form young minds and influence public policies. So, we expect them to know what they are talking about. It is their duty and obligation as well. But they do not know: they think they are being ‘logical’, when they commit mistakes that a freshman should not. How fit I am to be a teacher and an intellectual if I talk about matters studied in Physics without knowing anything about Physics? What would my ‘expertise’ in Physics amount to, when it transpires that I do not know the first lesson in physics?

2. Invariably, such tremendous but unforgivable ignorance goes hand-in-hand with contempt for the subject matter of logic. I do not know whether Shabnum has expressed this; but it is implicit in any case. I have heard claims like the following from precisely these kinds of pundits: ‘I do not do logic-chopping’; ‘The world does not follow your rules of logic’; ‘I totally reject Aristotelian (or bourgeois) logic’; ‘what we need is less ‘or-or’ reasoning but more ‘and-and’ thinking’ and so on and so forth. In and of itself I do not mind such death-defying acts; however, I do have problems with the fact that it is sheer ignorance that talks here. Those who talk like this or embody such attitudes are legion; social sciences are full of pompous ignoramuses like these. Here, the problem is this: why is such a dismissive attitude ingrained among social scientists? Answering this question gives us some handle on Chandokes and Shabnums of this world as well.

3. To some extent, this attitude is a part of the contempt for theories. Most social scientists are incapable of producing theories and hypotheses of the required kind. They think that all these domains consist of mere ‘opinions’ and that one cannot produce knowledge about human beings, cultures and societies. Consequently, any opinion is as good as any other opinion: after all, everyone of us knows what ‘culture’, ‘religion’, ‘politics’ etc are all about. So, what matters what one says? This attitude to knowledge, which characterizes post- world war social sciences (especially under the influence of the US), is also shared by Shabnum. To understand this wide-spread dismissal of the importance of theory and the possibility of producing knowledge would also enable us to understand the Chandokes and Sahbnums of this world.

4. And then, there is also an equally abysmal ignorance about theories of meaning, reference and language. Yet, this does not deter them talking about ‘meaning’ and ‘historical contexts’, ‘language and society’ and such like. The number of times I have heard intellectuals saying, ‘I totally reject Aristotelian notion of truth’ or ‘I reject the correspondence theory of language’ is indefinitely many. Of course, these people did not know what they were talking about in each of these cases. So, this way of ‘rejecting’ all kinds of things they know nothing about characterizes Shabnums of this world as well. Here too, my objections are the same. In an increasing fashion, it appears as though the only (and supreme) qualification to become an intellectual and social scientist seems to be ignorance and not knowledge. We need to understand this process as well.

So, I could go on, but I will stop here. When I say, therefore, they talk but do not think, I am not explaining why they say what they say: I am merely characterizing what is it that they do. Let us first find out what they do, before we explain.

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