Reason, Expression and Freedom by Dr Ganesh N Devy, Chair, People’s Linguistic Survey of India.
From the Kerala Diamond Jubilee Lecture Series
This evening I thought I would present to you some of my thoughts on ‘Reason, Expression and Freedom.’ Aristotle is believed to have said “I love Plato, but I love more Plato’s thought.” Plato in no small measure made a big virtue of vision. In those centuries before Christ, in ancient Greek culture, poets were called vates, (not the veterinary doctors); these were the visionaries, almost like those at the dawn of Indian civilization. We had poets who were known for their Richas – rushis – who were able to see beyond their own space, and beyond their time, and tried to communicate, tried to express that wonderful togetherness of man , nature and energy. However, Aristotle introduced a wedge between vision and thought. And we have in the western tradition the birth of what we know today as ‘Reason’ or Rationality. I shall speak a little bit about its progress and what it has done to us in our time. I am not going to present the entire history – it is not possible to do so in the next 40 or 45 minutes. So I shall only touch upon the more important stops in the vast trajectory of Reason in the West.
Humans have a great curiosity about what is non-human. The consciousness tries to create – at least a momentarily completed picture of the phenomenal world, the world external to the consciousness. We do not know if the phenomenal world is a fiction created by the consciousness, or whether consciousness itself is a child of the reality that surrounds us. There is a big debate as to which comes first or whether both of them are real or both of them are unreal at the same time. Phenomenology spent a good couple of centuries debating this and yet has not come to any final conclusion on this issue. But at the heart of the matter there is this fact that humans have this ‘abiding ‘interest in knowing what truth is, the truth of existence, the truth of the world, the truth beyond existence and the world as we know and see beyond the human – truth in what transcends human and the natural – and I am not talking of reality – which is different from ‘truth’ – because of this abiding interest in knowing ‘truth’ humans have generated what we call today ‘knowledge’.
Now a little bit about what ‘knowledge’ is. We experience the world through senses – the sensory perception accumulates in the brain to the extent we have memory – individual memory. Individuals remember the accumulated wealth of sensory perception but a point comes when the individuals have to fade into time and pass on the experience of the world to the next generation and it is there that the perception of many individuals – the memory based perception of many individuals is gathered and posited, collected as if it is outside individuals, as if it exists objectively.
While the origin is in the mind of an individual and many such individuals, what gathers, what gets collected becomes impersonal from one generation to the next generation requires a mechanism and that gives rise to institutions such as schools and at a later stage universities. All of us present here are in the business of carrying the old stock of remembered experiences to the new generation. So what is called knowledge is essentially accumulated memory. When memory gets complicated then what is accumulated requires a different regimen, a different regulation for controlling it , for keeping it safe for making sense of what is gathered – the collective memory. It is easy for one or two generations to remember – But if you go to fifty generations before your time you would be lost. So it is at this stage that a certain arrangement needs to be introduced, a certain classification needs to be introduced in what is collected. And that gives birth to what is called taxonomy.
Around the 15th and the 16th century in Europe, when there was a sudden outburst of new intellectual energy there was an attendant attempt at classifying things differently. Before the 16th and the 17th century, memory was –the collected memory –treated through certain known paths. There were mnemonics (tricks to remember) in use in plenty. For instance, a certain character/letter helps in recalling several facts, and so one put such characters/letters together and made a little verse. In many languages, the first letters of the words of colour terms for all colours in the spectrum are put together to make an acronym. It helps one to remember the colours in the spectrum. Such were the memory tricks that civilizations have used all along in all ages. It is the necessity of the human consciousness and its relationship with the external world. During the 16th and the 17th centuries in Europe, scholars found that these tricks were no longer enough to keep together all of the collected memory of centuries in the form of a manageable knowledge stock. Therefore, they started devising new methods of classification so there was a taxonomy for Chemistry, (the periodic table) Zoology, Botany, Physics etc. – for Planets and stars, for all kinds of Geological material and so on. Thinkers in Europe felt that having so many different tables , so many different classifications still keeps all of the knowledge beyond the reach of a single individual scholar and they started wondering whether there could not be a single method to remember everything. Many of them developed strange methods of remembering. One of them was Leibniz, a German philosopher. Leibniz finally arrived at a level of abstraction; it was to strive at abstracting facts, physical experience, mental experience or memory or history. This came handy in abstracting and harmoniously bringing together all that was known. In this way, Leibniz arrived at a higher level of abstraction. He held that everything can be remembered if it is converted to digits such as 1 and 0. He maintained that one can split everything in terms of strings of zero and one. The assumption was that if one understood how to read this, how to relate this zero – one, 001,100 – infinite series of combinations, permutations of these digits, then anybody would have a good chance to ‘know’. Leibniz said that “harmony is the governing principle of the universe”. By this he meant that all knowledge has to be harmoniously placed together. No two sets or sub- sets of knowledge known to humans should be incongruously placed with the general order of knowledge. Leibniz made a very important historical accomplishment in that what he created was described in his lifetime and subsequently in all generations as ‘universal knowledge’. ‘Universal Knowledge’ is not knowledge about the universe. It is the basic method of recording and organizing knowledge. If you know that method then it can be applied to any subset of the collected knowledge. That was the meaning of the expression he used it, in his own coinage. Now this had a guiding principle laid down, for what it means to think and the idea of thought took a more concrete shape than it had during the time of Aristotle who said “I like Plato but I like Plato’s thought more”. This idea of what thought is very clear in Descartes’ formulation “I think, therefore I exist”. From the 17th on to the 18th century this method of thinking and this method of knowledge had defined conversely what knowledge is and what thought is.
In the 18th century we have important philosophers who speak in terms of primacy of thought over experience and the superiority of thought over vision. Hobbs in ‘Leviathan’ takes a stand, where he says, if you give free range to imagination, you become a sinful person. In fact, imagination leads you to ‘melancholy’ a disease which was considered to be universal in England at that time. Shakespeare’s treatment of King Lear has an element of ‘melancholy’. Lear the old King is under the attack of melancholy. Milton’s treatment of Satan has this element of ‘melancholy’ because Satan is shown as burning in a dark river. Darkness is associated with melancholy because they believed that vapors rise from the spleen and affect the thinking process. Darkness was associated with melancholy. Hobbes says that imagination seizes what does not exist and the affected mind starts seeing goblins, witches, ghosts when they are hit by melancholy driven imagination. As against that, thought was considered as the harbinger of light. Thought made things clearer. Thought showed the contours of reality in very clear relief. Therefore, knowledge had to be thoughtful or rational. The term rational means the ability of the human mind to know. That is the basic meaning of the term ‘rational’. Humans have a ‘rational’ mind (a view later rejected by Sigmund Freud) that was the belief at that time.
As we move ahead in the 19th century after the war devastated Europe and after Napoleon was no more. Suddenly a very important French thinker – Augustus Comte decided that not only Physics, Zoology. Botany Mathematics, Planets, Chemistry be linked together in a system, but even what we call today humanities or social sciences. They were only called human disciplines – even they be linked in the same systematic, symmetrical way with the rest of Knowledge. So he produced his wonderful series of tomes on ‘What is Human Science’ He started his work in 1822 or 1823 and completed it by 1835 middle of the 19th century. In all this history rationality and knowledge based on rationality had developed its rhetoric to justify themselves. And this rhetoric said that if thought is not logical if it is not in the structure of “Á, therefore, B” – “something happens, therefore, something else happens.” We see that in action in construction of history in Hegel’s sense. History is not just the memory of what happened in the past, but history is the sequence of things in terms of causality.
Now, science or what Europe called science came up and rationality and thought based on rationality took shape precisely in centuries when colonialism was the order of the day and that had a great impact on our destinies here and destinies of people in Africa, Latin America and so on. We had our own traditions of remembering things.
We had our own traditions of handing down knowledge from one generation to the next generation. In western traditions, veracity – evidence- proof became the defining features of thought based knowledge. In our traditions it was not veracity, proof or evidence, but when a guru taught a shishya, the shishya knew that the guru has knowledge and the guru understood intuitively that the shishyas have acquired that knowledge. So intuition was the parameter for judging validity of the knowledge process or transaction- not evidence not proof, not logical proof but intuition. Now these two traditions came into direct conflict during the colonial times. We of course had other traditions of remembering. We had traditions of memory of people who worked with hands- the farmers, women and so on, and their traditions of memory had never been canonized in India. They were rejected, unfortunately, which was a great tragedy for us. But even in those traditions, those other traditions, the logic was that tradition of knowledge develops along certain hazy lines of intuition rather than rationality. This clash gave the rest of the world a sense of inferiority and Europe a sense of unnecessary superiority. Unnecessarily Europe started thinking that science and therefore technology will civilize humans all over the world and effectively produce lasting solutions for basic dilemmas of being human. This faith kept multiplying through the 19th century.
Through the 19th century there used to be debates as to whether science holds truth or poetry holds truth. Is scientific truth superior to poetic truth, and so on. Unnecessary controversies, unnecessary debates I would say. This faith in rationality – there is a contradiction of terms – Science became a kind of a religion and religion was therefore dropped out of people’s life – at least social life. This faith in science and rationality created huge struggles during the 20th century, and based on quite a dogma-like faith in science, millions were killed in Europe and outside. Initially, I had said that the Greeks thought of visionaries and those visionaries imagined that ‘word’ had a power of its own – that ‘word’ itself illuminates things. Religions all over the world considered ‘word’ having a magical power. It is the ‘word’ that connects the mind and the world – chitta and vishwa – the conscious and the phenomenal world and, thereby, bridges the word and the world. In this view, not the ‘word’, not the consciousness, but the connecting thing is seen as of a greater importance than either the ‘word’ itself or the mind that pursues the ‘word’. That also was a way of knowing because the ‘word’ knew itself as a verb rather than ‘knowledge’ which is normally seen only as a noun (and rarely as a verb ‘knowing’). That was a take of many civilizations on what ‘word’ is.
Throughout the 19th century societies all over the world found a new expression. I shall come to this new expression in a minute’s time. It was the expression of their collective rights. But before I speak that let me say about what happened to natural expression of individuals. The insistence on veracity, the insistence on logic -the insistence on what can be checked by others and found equally valid or invalid laid Europe to believing that what is written is superior to what is spoken. There is of course a great support to that argument coming from the technology of printing which was then new in Europe. The print technology made the written word considered more serious than the spoken word which is against the spirit of the Greek and the earlier Upanishadic, several non-Upanishadic and Buddhistic traditions. In our country for instance this had a terrible impact on languages that we spoke and a similarly terrible impact was there on spoken languages in the rest of the world. I will give a little account. In the 19th century the print technology came to India. In some parts of the world it came a little earlier, some 20 years earlier. I am giving a broad picture so it doesn’t matter – Only some languages were printed. Others were not printed. The ones that were printed were considered languages of substance. The languages that were not printed were considered as inferior languages. Languages only of spoken tradition- oral tradition and what is oral were considered less important than what is written. Our writers have not only been writing but also passing on their knowledge through the oral means. Tukaram in Marathi for instance used to sing bhajans as well as write them. He was known to people all over the country through his singing as was Meera and Akkamahadevi rather than through his writing. So it was the oral expression that had a greater attraction for people. Written expression remained along with the oral expression without one excluding the other, without one denying the other. Is Tukaram truer in his writings than in his bhajans? Or is it the other way around? That question is absurd because both came to him naturally. Throughout the 19th century our writers who earlier communicated orally took to print in a big way because India is a country that loves languages.
By the beginning of the 20th century when we had some glimpse of a nation that was around the corner, a nation that was about to take birth. Our leaders started thinking about the language diversity, and felt quite lost with so many of them around. They said there could be a linguistic state reorganization when we become independent. Indeed after independence there was a commission for linguistic reorganization of states based on languages that were in print – or had written literature in them. These languages were given states for themselves. Languages which did not have written literature in them were denied statehood. To give some examples the Bhili languages spoken by more than two and a half crores did not get a state. So it got distributed in four states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. The same happened to Santali, of course, much later, a Jharkand was created. A similar thing happened with Gondi language. There are many such languages which got bisected, trisected or fell into many small fragments. Because of this ‘written alone is authentic logic’ in the 1962 census India had a list of 1652 mother tongues. In 1971 census, this had been brought down because of a cutoff point that was introduced. There had to be at least 10000 speakers for a language to be included in the census data that is published. We do not know what happened to those 1554 mother tongues. In my estimate at least 250 have died in the last 50 years in India. Globally this situation exists. Globally it is believed that there were 6000 living languages. And it is also estimated by a number of agencies and individual scholars and linguists that out of 6000 at least 4000 may quite likely disappear in the next 50 years. Globally it seems that languages die. Human languages die. Not just language A or B but language itself is dying and that is a worrisome situation. Why have we arrived at this situation? Is it only because of Colonialism or Writing or Rationality? There is something more happening. And that is an intriguing question. In order to explain that intriguing question at least partially, I will bring in the concept of ‘freedom’.
I said earlier that societies in the 19th century had started responding to things in a rather new way. The new way was that the social contract changed particularly after the American war of independence and the French revolution. Earlier the social contract was that you were protected by somebody who was protected by Divine Grace. There were kings and queens who had some kind of divine sanction to rule over you. But after the French Revolution the nature of the contract changed as Rousseau would have said and every individual was recognized as individual with the right to belong to the society. They were all equal or almost equal and they could rule themselves. This is freedom. During the 19th century yet another concept emerged and that was the concept of the ‘nation’. For quite a while countries that were for their liberty and freedom thought that ‘nation’ almost a cousin of the concept of ‘Freedom’. To be a ‘Nation’ -sovereign- in order to be free, also brought in the idea of becoming a ‘nation’ by yourself. We know that in the middle of the 20th century countries that had developed the idea of ‘nation’ – in European history, the idea of ‘nation’ emerged in an accented way- particularly in Italy and in Germany. By the middle of the 20th century the countries that had taken ‘nation’ as the primary idea as against ‘freedom’, were in a bloody clash with countries that had taken ‘freedom’ as the primary idea rather than ‘nation’.
The entire history of the Second World War shows that countries are aligned along the idea of ‘nation ‘or ‘freedom’. Therefore ‘Freedom ‘and ‘Nation’ started appearing as ideas that were antithetical. People are looking for a new kind of ‘Freedom’. I said that the social contract changed. Today even that social contract appears to be out dated and the human mind is looking for a new kind of ‘freedom’.
I come to the conclusion of what I have to say. I will give you an example and then come to the point that I was trying to make. This light that you see in the ceiling – imagine it to be a star that is 400 light years from us. So it has taken 400 years for the light to travel from its source to the target which is your eye. At the moment of your looking at that do you become 400 years older? Or does the star suddenly jump out of its time zone and move ahead by 400 years? If such a question is asked I would say that it is absurd. Really speaking, in the space between the star and you, your sense of time has no meaning. As your sense of time is earth bound. Now the human mind is trying to figure out some meaning of that space and that time which is beyond the normal ken of human languages. Human languages are all tense bound languages. Languages have the past tense, present tense and future tense. Very rarely there can be a language that does not have these structures. And because we all belong to the linguistic way of thinking, we tend to bind ourselves in that time and space frame work. The human mind is probably looking forward to jumping out of this frame work to find a new ‘freedom’. Very briefly let me add, that is, the cosmos is believed to be almost 1400 crore years old. The big bang took place 1400 crores of years ago. The solar system emerged about 600 crore years ago. The Earth settled down 450 crore years ago. Life started in its initial form around 250 crore years ago. Humans emerged around 500,000 years ago. Language as we know is only 70,000 years old. Which means humans after emerging as homo-sapiens formed communities but did not have the kind of language that I am speaking to you now – not sound based language. For the first 2 lakh years, probably it was the language of the theatre. Sometimes you nod your head – that’s the language of theatre. It is not French, Spanish, Malayalam or Marathi – it is Universal. Almost for 2 lakh years after that the language was of tones – tonality. I will call it language of music. Laughter is a remnant of that pre-historical phase of the evolution of humans. At least for the last 70,000 years that humans have developed the language that we speak. It has started coming to the notice of in recent decades (about 30 years) that the human brain has started developing fatigue for language as we use it. When verbal articulation first enters the brain, it is in the left lobe of the brain that it gets stored and processed. This area of the brain is known as the Broca’s lob. The processing is effected through a coordinated and immensely complex work of some 85 billion neurons that help the brain to reduce the sound signals into abstraction and judgment. Neurologists have started promoting the view that the children today do not take to reading, not because they are cognitively deficient but because they are cognitively ahead of our times. An excellent research on dyslexic children points to the fact that children with dyslexia are at least a 100 years ahead of other children – in terms of their ability to abstract which is the key for formulation of what we call knowledge. Children’s ability to abstract and their ability to arrive at judgments is greater in the case of dyslexic children. Now these scientists have turned back to point out that Leonardo de Vinci was dyslexic and Einstein himself was dyslexic and so on. Scientists are saying that in the future humans might move out of the linguistic phase. I said theatre, music, language might move out of this phase and get into a phase of cognition, perception which is based on visually – the visual image – the image based communication – image based cognition. Scientists say this because images get into the brain through the eye – the work that the neurons have to do is less. And the entire load of memory that we have dumped upon the present and the future generation is far too much for the brain to carry in terms of linguistic transactions alone. If it is language of imagery then that language will be free of tense structure because in an image the past, present and the future can melt together. As in the browsing space, cyber space. If you have such a cognition , such a mechanism to relate to the world then you will be able to relate to many planets ,not just the earth, not just the present and the past and the future as segmented as if it is a slice of bread. You can have multiple chronologies, orders or movements that can be perceived by the human brain. It is that kind of freedom that humans are looking up to. And it is therefore what we call the epistemic base of knowledge that has started collapsing. Therefore what used to be called knowledge is today becoming knowledges. There is a famous report on knowledge written by a Canadian French philosopher called Lyotard, “The Post-modern Condition” which has this argument: that Knowledge will no longer be in terms of analogies but in terms of paralogies. Not in terms of the Leibnez kind of classificatory scheme but in terms of many such kinds of classificatory schemes, each one of which need not be consistent with the other . That is to say that Reason will no longer be the basis of know ledge. Expression will be of a different kind. When that happens humans will have emerged into a new kind of freedom.
This appears to be the logic of the evolutionary process. Not the logic of human thought as it has been so far. But this evolutionary process is far beyond the capacity of human ability to control. When such a radical shift happens in the evolutionary process there is a common observation: Orthodoxies of all kinds come together and try to reduce diversity. Because evolution has slowed down we are on the right side of evolution or are trying to oppose it. Today the state, the nation, the society are all hell-bent on controlling freedom, rationality and expression. One might think that this is happening only in India. The murders of Rationalists, the murders of journalists, the attacks on scientists, it is not happening only in India. I am not trying to justify what is happening in India. I have condemned it publicly. I have condemned it personally and I have opposed all those attacks without any ambivalence. If you look at Turkey it is precisely the same that has happened. Kamal Pasha made Turkey a modern state. Today in Turkey 2000 students disappeared from a campus because they decided to subscribe to a certain course in their curriculum. Many writers are in jail. They have been killed. This is happening in Egypt. I was at Grenoble last year. Grenoble is the place where the French Revolution started. When I was there, it was the day when Britain exited Europe. I wanted to get together with other writers to protest against the breaking down of Europe. The Mayor called us and said “since you are from other countries, don’t protest. It will be risky for you. Rather come and have some wine with me. But I said Grenoble is known for the French revolution!
I was at Dandi, on 30th January last year. Dandi is a small village known for the Salt Sathyagrah. I wanted to take a group of 700 or 800 writers there to protest against the attack on expression. The Sarpanch said “I will give you lunch – cost free! Don’t protest!” I asked the Sarpanch “What is Dandi known for?” He said “Gandhi”. What is known about Gandhi? Gandhi came here for the Salt Sathyagraha. I said “If Gandhi could come here in the time of the British, in free India can’t I come to protest?” He said “No, no I will be in difficulty”. I think the phenomena of attacks on Expression , on Rationality and Freedom all over the world – like my friend – when I say ‘friend’ I am using it in a manner of expression– Donald Trump said “something is going on there.” This is a threat to Freedom to Expression and Rationality. The attacks on rationality Expression and Freedom is probably there because the human mind is moving ahead looking for a new kind of Freedom. In these times to think of these issues in a larger framework and to take the next step forward without fear – as Rabindranath Tagore said “Where the mind is without fear…”
I think, to be there without fear and to be with humans as humans turn into animals of a different kind- probably a mix of the digital and physical- as humans acquire a consciousness which is much larger than just the narrow idea of Knowledge, Imagination and Reason, is our duty – don’t you think so ? Thank you.
Professor G. N. Devy, was educated at Shivaji University, Kolhapur and the University of Leeds, UK. He has been professor of English at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, a renowned literary critic, and a cultural activist, as well as founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre at Baroda and the Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh. Among his many academic assignments, he has held the Commonwealth academic Exchange Fellowship, the Fulbright Fellowship, the T H B Symons Fellowship and the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for After Amnesia, and the SAARC Writers’ Foundation Award for his work with denotified tribals. His Marathi book Vanaprasth has received six awards including the Durga Bhagwat memorial Award and the Maharashtra Foundation Award. Similarly, his Gujarati book Aadivaasi Jaane Chhe was given the Bhasha Sanman Award. He won the reputed Prince Claus Award (2003) awarded by the Prince Claus Fund for his work for the conservation of craft and the Linguapax Award of UNESCO (2011) for his work on the conservation of threatened languages. In January 2014, he was given the Padmashree by the Government of India. He has worked as an advisor to UNESCO on Intangible Heritage and the Government of India on Denotified and Nomadic Communities as well as non-scheduled languages. He has been an executive member of the Indian Council for Social science Research (ICSSR), and Board Member of Lalit Kala Akademi and Sahitya Akademi. He is also advisor to several non-governmental organizations in France and India. Recently, he carried out the first comprehensive linguistic survey since Independence, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, with a team of 3000 volunteers and covering 780 living languages, which is to be published in 50 volumes containing 35000 pages. Devy’s books are published by Oxford University Press, Orient Blackswan, Penguin, Routledge, Sage among other publishers. His works are translated in French, Arabic, Chinese, German, Italian, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu and Bangla. He lives in Baroda.
© Professor Ganesh Devy