Freethinker and Dissenter
Nakul Krishna (PPE, Exeter 2007) in conversation with Akeel Bilgrami (PPE, Balliol 1971), now Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, about his life in philosophy and public life. The e-mail interview was conducted in September 2008.
I'd like to start by asking you about the political and intellectual climate in the early 1970s when you came up to read PPE at Balliol. What do you remember about the move from India to England, English to Philosophy, Bombay to Oxford?
I came to Oxford after having been fairly active in a left-wing student group in Bombay called PROYOM (Progressive Youth Movement) and having spent the last couple of years of college in intense discussion with other students and some faculty about Indian politics and political economy. We also tried to keep in touch as much as was possible to do in Bombay (without anything like the Internet or television) with the political issues of race, war, and of political economy that were so much in the air in universities abroad, especially in America and France. I was brought up in a very humanist and literary home, much influenced by a father and an elder sister who were avid readers and liked to talk to me constantly about the books they read. So it was more or less inevitable, I suppose, that I would study English literature at Elphinstone College. But I was also very influenced by a wise and extraordinarily intelligent and eloquent philosopher (in the Western tradition) called James D Swamidasan at Elphinstone. He never wrote much at all, but he was a very charismatic and forceful lecturer. Over those years, he influenced me not only with the ideas he conveyed in classes and the many long personal conversations I had with him, but in a broader, moral sense as well. I switched to Philosophy at Oxford and read PPE at Balliol.
Balliol had a lovely atmosphere at the time for young people: relaxed, unstuffy, uncareerist... Christopher Hill (whose books I had remembered seeing in my father's library) was the Master and that may have set the tone a bit. Alan Montefiore made me read Kant and had formed a small group of students to discuss the Critique of Pure Reason over two or three terms. That was a formative experience. After eavesdropping on a graduate seminar of his, I asked to be farmed out for a term and a half of tutorials with the brilliant and volatile Gareth Evans and that was an exhilarating intellectual experience. Oxford Philosophy was very exciting then -- apart from Evans, I remember a seminar given by Donald Davidson and Michael Dummett , where, though it was hard for me to follow all the issues, I got a sense of what sophisticated Philosophy was like.
Did being a Rhodes Scholar make the slightest difference to your experience at Oxford? And do you remember taking seriously its ideals of contributing to public life and so forth?
I must confess to not having taken particularly seriously the ideal of Rhodes Scholars, as all-rounders, as leaders, and in general as an elect and select body of of men. So I don't think being a Rhodes Scholar made much of a difference to anything I experienced at Oxford. There were some very interesting people who had come up from different parts of the world as Rhodes Scholars, whom I enjoyed meeting very much. But that was the extent of it.
What, I wonder, tempted you to America for graduate work given Oxford's pre-eminent (if no longer unique) status as a philosophical Mecca in the 70s? And -- unless this is too complicated a question to answer briefly -- what is your relationship, intellectual and otherwise, with the Oxford of today?
I went back for a couple of years after Oxford to India to teach and to do some social and political work as well. Before I left Oxford, I had been advised by Gareth Evans to go and study for a PhD with either Donald Davidson or Paul Grice in America, both of whom he greatly admired. While in India for these two interim years, I had managed to keep up with some reading and thinking about Philosophy of Language and I decided to apply to the University of Chicago where Davidson had just moved and was lucky enough to be given a scholarship there. Though you are right that Oxford was a very magnetic place for philosophy in the seventies, it was not the same sort of place it was in the fifties and early sixties. By the time I had arrived there in the seventies, a few, very prominent, philosophers in the United States like Davidson, Quine, Rawls had much the most influence on Oxford Philosophy, or at any rate the most exciting areas of Oxford Philosophy. So, I felt if I could do my graduate work with one of them in America, that would be a wonderful opportunity. I still have a brief airmail letter from Evans written to me while I was back in Bombay, saying I would be mad to turn down the chance to study with Davidson. I am very glad I took his advice. I had a very sustained philosophical education for the very first time as a result of our fairly close relationship in the late seventies and early eighties in Chicago, which we then kept up even after I ceased being his student.
You ask about my relationship with Oxford now. As you perhaps know, during the Thatcher period a number of good philosophers left Oxford and came away to America and though I have admired many philosophers like Dummett, , Wiggins (now retired), who stayed back in Oxford, the University simply doesn't have the same influence in the subject that it used to, despite the presence of some fine philosophers there.
It can often seem like South Asian academics in the humanities are restricted to areas concerning their countries of origin, their contributions to their disciplines taken seriously, treated as 'authentic', only when they work within areas like post-colonial theory or area studies. Which is why your academic work in philosophy of mind and language is remarkable for taking on the tough technical question of Anglo-American philosophy on their own turf. I was wondering if you'd say something about your attraction to these aspects of the discipline and how Oxford shaped your own philosophical outlook.
Well, I have to say that I really became a serious philosopher only after coming to study with Davidson in America. I was too young and unformed intellectually in Oxford. I found Evans inspiring but my encounter with him was brief. And I was very interested in politics when I was in Oxford in the seventies -- there was still the impress of the late sixties on all of us at Balliol then, as well as on my non-philosophical Indian friends. So the kind of focused work I did in philosophy as a graduate student in America was simply not part of my intellectual life in Oxford.
Your political interventions from the 80s on would seem to mark you as the exemplary 'public intellectual'. You have spoken out on a number of questions, including the Rushdie fatwa, American foreign policy, and more generally on questions about religion and politics. I wonder if you'd reflect briefly on how you perceive the role of the academic who chooses to participate in public debates?
Yes, the fatwa was a mobilizing moment for me and I began to think much harder about politics after that, especially on issues of secularism and identity. There are not many philosophers (in the analytic tradition) who take an interest in these subjects. Bernard Williams did it brilliantly, though not quite on the topics that I have written on. I loved talking philosophy with him on the few occasions that I did at some length. His early death was a very great loss for the subject. Anthony Appiah is an exception too, but there are very few such exceptions. Though I suppose it is right to describe me as having two different interests, philosophical and political, there is increasingly some connection between my recent work in the philosophy of mind and moral psychology (especially the ideas in my recently published book called Self-knowledge and Resentment) and my political and cultural interests.
I don't have a detailed normative ideal of the role of the academic in public life. I can think of a few exemplary figures. Chomsky, for instance. There is no one like him, really -- that sort of integrity and courage and of course that immensely detailed understanding of a range of different aspects of politics, the economy, and the intellectual history within which we must understand political and economic issues, not to mention the sheer intellectual power...
I should say that I really don't write about politics out of an obsessive interest in it, as some of the pundits do. I tend only to write about it when something in public life makes me angry and I feel I must sit down and sort out the analytical issues at stake and come to some judgements and analysis of what would be the right and decent position to take.
Another aspect of your academic work seems to be driven by the same impulses that drive these political interventions. I refer here to, among other things, your forthcoming work on Islam and on Gandhi's philosophy. Do you ever find a conflict between your academic and political aims? If so, how do you go about balancing their rival claims.
The interest in Islam, as I said, was prompted by the events that I just mentioned. I remember writing an essay called 'What is a Muslim?' in one long very feverish spell of writing soon after the fatwa. Nothing very much had been written then of a philosophical kind about Islam and politics, and I really didn't have anything to ground my ideas in. It is an essay that I still think is right in its general philosophical angle on the issues. But of course since that time the whole world has become obsessed with Islam, so in fact I have started to back off from my writing about it. I think there is a sort of cold war against Islam in America and also in England, judging from the writing of some of the more celebrated literary figures there. I was highly critical of Islamists when I first wrote about these subjects in the eighties. But now I won't criticize Islam in public forums in the way I used to unless I am speaking to a large group of Muslims as I sometimes do when I am very occasionally in Pakistan or the Middle East. I won't really do it in America and England because I feel it is feeding into what people want to hear out of a reflex prejudice against Islam these last few years.
My writing on Gandhi is pretty much restricted to his thought and not the historical figure. In my work on him, I have been situating Gandhi's philosophical writing, (which, as you know, is critical of some of the ideas of the European Enlightenment) in a dissenting and radical tradition in the West itself, going back to some of the radical sectaries in revolutionary England in the 1640s and 1650s and then the somewhat later scientific dissenters in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. This is the left-wing Gandhi, if you like -- a sort of rescue effort from the anti-modernist figure he is often taken to be. This circles back to the influence that Oxford had on me. Perhaps the greatest historian of that remarkable period of English History that I am focusing on and within which I am placing Gandhi's thinking, was Christopher Hill, who, as I said, was the Master of Balliol when I was a student there. I admired him greatly and read a lot of his work as student in Oxford and have been reading him avidly again along with a range of other historians as well as historians of science of that period. There is a very strong affinity between the thought of the 'freethinkers' and dissenters of that period and Gandhi's ideas and I think this helps to bring out what a creatively radical figure Gandhi was in his own context and time in India.
'Literature, like life, is not meant to be easy'
Nakul Krishna (Exeter, PPE 2007) in conversation with Aveek Sen (English, University 1989), now Senior Assistant Editor (Editorial Pages) for The Telegraph, Calcutta. The e-mail exchange was conducted in June 2008.
Cecil Rhodes famously required 'that the students who shall be elected to the scholarships shall not merely bookworms' and that he 'esteem the performance of public duties as his highest aim'. That seems to rule out the stereotypical student of English Literature, or maybe not. In applying for the Rhodes Scholarship, how did your perception of yourself match up to the superhuman overachiever the Scholarship seemed to be looking for?
I applied for the Rhodes blissfully unaware of all the baggage it carried. This was 1988. Someone had told me that one had to be an aristocratic, good-looking sportsman to get the Rhodes, and since by no stretch of the imagination could I call myself that (not that I wanted to), I sent off my application and forgot about it, thinking that they would take one look at me and that would be the end of it. I was very happily settled into my postgraduate English life at Jadavpur University in Calcutta. I loved the city, had terrific friends, and was enjoying myself in a completely unambitious way, reconciled to being a teacher of some sort after I finished my MA here (nothing clearer than that by way of ambition!). It was my teachers who persuaded me to apply for the Rhodes, and I did because I was too lazy to resist them. I remember reading up about Cecil Rhodes in the Encyclopedia Britannica before the first interview, and thinking that he must have been a bit of a bore. I had no visions of 'Oxford' or of the 'Rhodes Scholar' or of 'public life' at all. I loved books, art, music, people, and travelling, and thought, in a vague sort of way, that getting the Rhodes would combine all that in a novel setting. I was mildly surprised when I got through the first round, and then crazily happy after I got it, but in a rather mindless and unheroic and unidealistic way. No grand, Rhodes-y or Oxford-y vision. Sir David Goodall, the British High Commissioner then, was part of the final panel of interviewers, and my interview was almost entirely an utterly informal and eccentric chat with him about Mozart and the Victorian novelists, and how Rhodes would be exactly that sort of a man who would bore me to death if I sat next to him at dinner. There was an icy silence in that hall, but I didn't care, because I was in Bangalore for the first time, alone in a new city, and I had decided to enjoy myself whatever the outcome of the interview, and I had not invested, emotionally or otherwise, in going to England. When I did get the Scholarship, I was happy because I felt something new was about to happen to me that might change my life, and the Scholarship itself was just a source of funding, without any other symbolic meaning attached to it. And that is what it remains to me to this day. Then I got my reading lists from my Oxford tutors, and it dawned on me that I had to work very very hard and teach myself to read Middle English in Middle English. And that was the direction from which thoughts of superhumanity reached me. But they were welcome thoughts because I loved reading and writing. So the work ethic was instilled in me by my tutors rather than the ethos of the Scholarship, and as a 'Rhodes Scholar' I never consciously identified with any collective identity.
Do you remember how you reconciled your plans to study English at Oxford with the Scholarship's implicit expectation of a commitment to a career in public life?
You know, I never thought about these things because I was clueless about what was expected of me. I went in with a blank mind, and when they asked me about my commitment to public life at the final interview, I talked about teaching, because I truly liked doing it, and I also told them very clearly that I didn't want to become an academic eventually because I profoundly disliked academic jargon and the vanity that came with it, and would prefer to teach at the high-school level. I had never thought then about working for a newspaper, and would never ever read one. (I started reading newspapers only when I started working for one: in my mid-thirties!) but I wasn't a bookworm at all, and had a very eclectic circle of friends, most of whom were well outside my social and cultural niche in Calcutta. I think it was clear to the interviewers that I was genuinely interested in teaching because I was genuinely interested in other human lives, and that was public-spirited enough for them, I guess.
What are your fondest memories of your undergraduate Oxford career?
As I said, I think literature was always important and pleasurable for me because of real people and my interest in their inner and outer lives. So, even when I was faced with the rigour of the Oxford undergraduate life, it never felt like 'studying', although I used to work superhumanly hard. But it never ever felt like an exclusive, academic activity in that narrowly bookish sense. This was, of course, largely because of the interestingness of my tutors, who didn't seem to bother the least bit about my 'Rhodes Scholar' identity, which was terribly refreshing and liberating. I now realise that my tutors were the last of the brilliantly-batty, old-school personalities, who were far from conservative and old-fogeyish. On the contrary, they were the most sparkling and unconventional of people, and ever so sharp and tuned in, my god!
And the place itself?
Oxford, to me, is the only other city, apart from Calcutta, where I feel entirely at home. At the risk of sounding dreadfully twee, I can say that I feel it is always 'there' for me. Also, such beauty... But it can also make one feel listless and desolate, and nightmarishly overworked. But, later on, after one has left Oxford -- as one must, in order not to become a pickled undergraduate for the rest of one's life -- all that becomes part of the goldenness of Oxford Remembered.
In your critical writings, you tend to prefer careful attention to prose and themes to theory. Part of this is no doubt the challenge of writing for a mainstream newspaper, but your writing almost never panders to the needs of the 800-word review ('Two Thumbs Up!' etc) -- so in general, what do you aim to achieve in a review?
I think good critical writing, academic or mainstream, should give pleasure and stimulate the intelligence into working for itself. Literature is not written primarily for literature courses or academics, but for readers who come to it with many sorts of things to take away. Hence, catholicity is an important quality for me, but I don't think critics exist to make things 'accessible'. Literature, like life, is not meant to be easy. Making things stupidly difficult is the academic trap, and making things stupidly easy is its journalistic counterpart. End of sermon.
You have, in writing for the Telegraph, frequently taken on explicitly political questions -- the Gujarat riots, most notably -- work that (despite your modesty about being a public figure) constitutes an important contribution to the public debate. Do you see that as a journalist's unique way of engaging in politics without actually being a politician?
Absolutely. If one is writing in the public domain, one is 'political', willy-nilly, in the widest sense of the term. I don't think I can be political in any other way.
Very Much a Wild Card
Neha Jain (Balliol, DPhil Law 2005) spoke to Ramaswamy Sudarshan (Balliol, PPE 1974), legal and policy advisor to the United Nations Development Programme in July 2008.
However hard it can now seem to believe that one could win a scholarship as prestigious and Old World as the Rhodes without having planned for it for most of one's waking life -- having gone to the ‘right institution’ and knowing how to talk the talk -- the stereotype is regularly belied by Scholars like Ramaswamy Sudarshan. Sudarshan chose to apply for the Scholarship more out of a desire to study Philosophy at Oxford than anything to do with the Scholarship itself. ‘Coming from the KGF region,' he says, referring to his background in the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka, 'and having studied primarily at Bangalore University, I didn’t really know much about the Rhodes Scholarship. It was only when I went to the Delhi School of Economics that I heard of it and decided to apply. Even then, when I went back to KGF, everyone thought that it was a scholarship awarded by the Public Works Department!’ He recalls his interview experience as being ‘surreal’.
‘Back then,' he says, 'there was a general assumption that only people from elite institutions like St Stephen’s College get the Rhodes; in fact on the train the shortlisted candidates took from Delhi to Bombay, nine were from St Stephen’s and seemed to know everything about the process. I was very much a wild card.’
The Rhodes Scholarship interview format today is much the same as it was in R Sudarshan's time. ‘We had dinner the previous evening at the yatch club in Bombay hosted by the Nawab of Pataudi, one of the members of the interview panel. The next day, I faced a rather imposing panel chaired by a Mrs Wood, with such eminent men on it as Lovraj Kumar, Asim Kumar Datta and Girish Karnad,’ referring respectively to the civil servant, educationist and playwright who had been Rhodes Scholars themselves. Till then, Ramaswamy had primarily been an economist. However, under the tutelage of his mentor T G Vaidyanathan, iconic Professor of English at Bangalore University, he had developed an interest in British analytic philosophy. ‘Economics is, in some ways, too down-to-earth, too practical – which is not to disparage the discipline. The Delhi School of Economics in fact had a very strong base in micro-economics and social choice theory. I actually alluded to the difference between Economics and Philosophy in my interview while discussing cricket. What makes cricket so appealing as a game is its mixture of predictability and unpredictability. In Econometrics, if you have large numbers, there is a certain amount of predictability, but the whole point of being a free person is the strong element of unpredictability. Whenever there is a strong element of human agency, Econometrics breaks down. It is these questions, and philosophers like Russell and Wittgenstein, that interested me. For someone wanting to study analytic philosophy, there was no place quite like Oxford.’
Ramaswamy’s time at Oxford sounds idyllic. He did Politics and Philosophy at Balliol College, and had occasion to attend lectures and have tutorials with some of the biggest names of the day – Ronald Dworkin, Derek Parfit, and Charles Taylor. He studied the British empiricists David Hume and John Locke under Steven Lukes, the eminent Political Theorist and Sociologist. He was also introduced to intellectual currents from the Continent while studying with Alan Montefiore, who was working on bridging the distance between Anglo-American and Continental philosophy. Kamal Hussain, former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, supervised his MPhil dissertation on constitutional amendments in India. ‘Most early constitutional amendments in India dealt with land reforms. What I figured during the course of my thesis was that the logic of the law is all or nothing, whereas in enacting these reforms, policy makers like Nehru wanted to incorporate all sorts of other elements – taking away power from the zamindars, the socialist agenda of land redistribution etc. However, once you judicialise a political issue like this, it tends to get more rigid.'
Ramaswamy speaks fondly of his life and contemporaries at Oxford. He spent his first year living in rooms in Balliol College itself, but moved out in his second year when he got married to Ratna Sudarshan, now Director of the Institute of Social Studies Trust. He is still in touch with people who lived on his staircase in Balliol, and has a host of amusing anecdotes to relate about his friends, including the current Indian Secretary of the Rhodes Trust and fellow Rhodes Scholar, Vir Chauhan. ‘Chauhan and I explored the Lake District together. We must have made a rather funny pair -- Chauhan, the tall strapping athlete and cross-country runner, and I, quite the non-sporty intellectual’.
Most of Ramaswamy’s Indian contemporaries at Oxford, including the senior historians Gyan Pandey and Shahid Amin, eventually returned to India. ‘The attrition rate to other countries back then was fairly low. In any case, I don’t think it is essential for people to go back to the countries from where they are elected. We live very much in a globalised world and the vision of the Founder [Cecil Rhodes] was an imperial vision – it’s quite natural to move from that to a global vision today. There should not be any conditions attached to educational scholarships.’
After graduating from Oxford, Ramaswamy got a fellowship at St John’s College, Cambridge. He was still interested in law and legal reasoning, but did not want to do a pure law degree. He enrolled in the Department of History at Cambridge under the supervision of Erik Stokes, perhaps best-known for his treatise The English Utilitarians and India. Ramaswamy worked on the evolution of law-making in India. ‘Indian law-making today is much the same as during the Raj. We pass one piece of legislation, and find that we don’t like all its consequences, so we pass another one to cancel out its effects.’ Ramaswamy also continued his association with Economics, examining how lawyers and judges address economic issues.
It was a conference in Warwick that resulted in his coming back to India. In the course of some casual conversations during the conference, he came to find out that the Ford Foundation was starting a new programme in Human Rights and Social Justice in Delhi. He was interviewed for the position in London and joined the Ford Foundation in Delhi in 1984. During his stint with the Foundation, it was heavily involved in the mechanics of the agricultural revolution, and he got involved with projects all over the sub-continent. He was also part of several other projects, including those with the Law and Society Trust and the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Sri Lanka, the Vanvasi Seva Ashram in India, and the Sokor Trust in Madurai. In addition, he initiated two significant projects. One was the first colloquium on the domestic application of international human rights norms in 1987. Organised in conjunction with the Commonwealth Secretariat, the colloquium featured distinguished speakers such as Justice P N Bhagwati, Justice Michael Kirby from Australia, and the Chief Justices of Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Mauritius and Pakistan. The colloquium resulted in the first Bangalore Principles of 1987, which are considered an important instrument in international human rights law.
The second project was the setting up of the Public Interest Legal Support and Research Centre (PILSARC) in Delhi. ‘The inspiration for the centre was the legal resource centre of South Africa, which is like a salaried bar that focuses only on public interest matters. I managed to persuade Rajeev Dhavan to leave his teaching position at Brunel and come and take up the Directorship at PILSARC. My association with Dhavan goes back quite a long way. At Oxford, we had both wondered why decisions by Indian judges were never cited in discussions of constitutional law and other legal developments. We decided to organize a seminar at University College, where a case each by Justice V R Krishna Iyer and Justice Bhagwati were discussed.’ From the Ford Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was a natural next step. Ramaswamy is currently the legal and policy advisor to the UNDP in Bangkok.