Everyone Should Be A Philosopher

Text of talk given at panel discussion on “Philosophy: The Greatest Journey of All”, organised on the occasion of World Philosophy Day by New Acropolis Cultural Organisation, Bangalore, 20th November 2015.

People tend to assume philosophy is something that is meant only for intellectuals.  So if we go by the comedian Bill Cosby’s definition that “an intellectual is somebody who reads up a lot on what comes naturally to other people”, we wind up viewing the philosopher as someone who has an esoteric interest in things that regular people need not bother with.  It is like not needing to know physics in order to live in a world that obeys the laws of physics.  This assumption is understandable; sometimes even professional philosophers subscribe to it. But it is a misunderstanding of philosophy, for I would argue that philosophy is something that every person must engage with, and this has become even more important in today’s age (towards the end of my presentation I will come to why it has become more important today).

To redefine our relationship with philosophy, we need to revise our conventional definitions of both philosophy as well as its methods. To explain my argument, I will use an example of an experience almost everyone has been through: learning how to drive.  The first few times you drove you were hyper-alert.  Every other vehicle on the road, every person walking on the side, all impinged upon your consciousness.  But as you got more experience, gradually you became more comfortable handling all this information.  Now, think about driving once you have become a very experienced driver, along an extremely familiar route you traverse regularly – like the commute between your home and office.  It is something so familiar that the information processing can move into the background of your consciousness (assuming nothing untoward like an accident or a traffic jam impede on your consciousness).  You find that often, your journey is spent thinking about something else (perhaps your friends, your family, your work, a movie you just saw, or any other issue unconnected with driving), and you reach your destination with no real memory of the process of driving there.  Think!  Have you missed out on something in this process?  Perhaps, on your journey, there was something or someone truly beautiful that you did not notice.  This illustration of driving may seem a trivial example but it illustrates something significant about life: habit is an anaesthetic.  When we get caught up by habit we stop observing life around us.  And we start missing out on what life can offer to us.  We become limited.  To get of out this predicament it is necessary to engage with philosophy, and to do so we must demolish three myths about it.

Myth No. 1: Philosophy is an academic activity meant only for professional philosophers:

If we remain alert, and keep asking questions like “Where am I?”, “Where am I going?”, “Why am I going there?”, or even “Who am I?”, then you get out of the anaesthesia of habit.  And you are practicing philosophy.  Philosophy is nothing but the questioning of what you are doing, so you do not limit your life by getting lost in the routines of habit.

Myth No. 2: The only method of philosophy is intellectualism:

If that were the case, you would feel compelled toward an academic approach: study all the philosophers from ancient times till today, and be aware of all the major philosophical questions that have been asked through history.  In which case, philosophy will appear an effort that is daunting, irrelevant, and not worthwhile.  But philosophy is more about questioning your life than explaining your life.  And to do that you have to step outside yourself, so you can look back at yourself to examine your life.

The primary method for doing this is conversation.  Think of how you have built up close relationships of friendship through conversation.  You listen carefully to your friend, and when you speak you know that your friend is also listening; so this gives the experience an aura of authenticity and connection.  Through your conversation you discover that you want this person to be your friend because the same things make you laugh, and the same things make you cry.  And those things, given that they encompass two separate beings, you and your friend, are clearly greater than either you or your friend.  Through anchoring in a greater level of significance, your relationship, your lives, begin to acquire meaning, identity, and purpose.

When you read a book, you are stepping outside yourself.  A different person returns, touched by the mind and world of the author, and the conversation between the old you and this new you remakes you as a person.

Philosophy is primarily this conversation between you and the world you inhabit, a world in which you seek the significance of your own life.  To perceive this conversation only as intellectual would be to deprive your life of fullness, for that would cast the purpose of philosophy as a means of explaining your life, which would make life boring for it would be nothing but applied philosophy.

Theory is not something that informs practice, and this is something I face every day in my life as an architect. I find that theory and practice tackle the same field, but in different directions.  Practice moves from the general to the specific.  When I execute a project I start with something general such as a design challenge posed by the project’s requirements and context.  Then I develop a set of possible concepts.  I pick one of those concepts, and start developing it in greater detail.  I get further into detail by resolving issues of structure, material, constructability, cost and so on.  If I do nothing but this, the inexorable directional thrust of this process will push my centre of gravity as a person further and further to the pole of detail: I become a ‘nuts-and-bolts’ person, anaesthetised by habit, forever unable to see the forest for the trees.  Theory, on the other hand, works in the opposite direction from the specific to the general.  It starts with a very specific observation and then seeks to develop generalisable rules and principles from that observation.  And if I do nothing but that, my centre of gravity as a person gets shifted further and further to the pole of generalisation: I become an ‘ivory tower’ intellectual, often distanced from the experiential richness of life. Theory and practice work best when the contradict each other.   Theory becomes a way of critiquing practice, and practice a way of critiquing theory, so neither gets to dominate, yet each affirms and develops the other.

You need to affirm thought with experience and experience with thought, because you always know more than you can tell.  This was pointed out by the philosopher Michael Polanyi, who coined the word ‘tacit knowledge’: knowledge that resides in your body, but is beyond your ability to put into words.  For example, the ability to ride a bicycle can be explained through the laws of physics, but learning the laws of physics is of no use whatsoever in knowing how to ride a bicycle.  You have to get on to a bicycle, and once you feel that knowledge in your body, you have learnt how to ride a bicycle.  But you cannot put that knowledge into words, and because it lives in your body, it is a knowledge that you do not forget.

Tacit knowledge is not just about prosaic acts like riding bicycles.  Our sense of beauty is also tacit.  Imagine experiencing an exceptionally scenic view: you spontaneously find it beautiful, and the people with you will also spontaneously agree that it is truly beautiful.  Yet none of you will be able to articulate a convincing rational explanation of why you find it beautiful.

If you do not internalise this continuous conversational and philosophical critique between your experience and your imagination, you will wind up like an unthinking robot blinkered by habit.  Even worse, you may spend your life living someone else’s habits.  For there will always be insecure people, who are wary of stepping into the unknown, who will, because of that fear, tell you that a predetermined code is the proper and only way to live your life.  And if you stay confined to a predetermined code, you cut off your own authenticity as a living being uniquely sentient with imagination, wonder, and creativity.  I am not claiming you must never listen to advice offered to you.  But you must temper that advice with the conversations of philosophy between your own unique and authentic self, the world you inhabit, and the new possibilities you can envision.

Myth No. 3: Philosophy is only about cold rationality, and does not connect with the emotional richness of life.

Once you identify philosophy as this dialogue between critique and experience, it is more than about rationality.  Because you keep stepping outside yourself, you are continuously extending your experience beyond your potentially selfish body to the world around you. Your consciousness begins to participate in the world.  And if you continue to critique your participation, you continue to enrich it, and the wider world becomes a part of your consciousness.  You get anchored in a realm that is greater than you, and this anchoring is what can give meaning and purpose in your life.  Think of all the fulfilling things that you connect with that are greater than you are: love, laughter, joy, beauty, and the sacred.

Philosophy is about bringing rigour into that connection, for rigour takes the connection into a higher realm.  This method of rigour is what Indian tradition calls “sadhana” – an immersive, critically alert, experiential and ego-transcending practice.

This is best illustrated in incident narrated in an interview of Pushkar Lele, a young vocalist in the classical Hindustani tradition <http://tinyurl.com/zwsv59a>, who speaks of a time when he hit a plateau after having trained in music for fifteen years.  To break out of this, he started training under a new guru, Vijay Sardeshmukh.  Expecting that Sardeshmukh would grant him the key to the new realm he sought to enter, he was surprisingly pushed back to the very basics, and asked to sing a single note ‘sa’ (‘do’ in Western scale).  Lele said, “When I started learning from him, he made me sing just ‘sa’ for six long months! It was utterly frustrating after having learnt for 15 years. But one day, when I hit the ‘sa’ he wanted, he smiled and I realised that I had, till then, never hit the centre of a note before!”

Lele’s story shows that once we follow sadhana, the rigour facilitates a level of discernment that allows us to see life with a fine grain that one could not see earlier.  Philosophy is a form of sadhana that facilitates our continuously seeing life with the fresh eyes of increasing discernment.  The point is not some final state of ultimate knowledge, but a continuous process of dispelling inertia to truly see what is in front of you.  As T.S. Eliot said in his poem Little Gidding,

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

In conclusion, let me return to the point I raised in the beginning: the fact that our need for philosophy has never been greater than in today’s age.  In an essay titled The Ecstasy of Communiction, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard points out the the nature of psychological alienation has changed.  Earlier alienation was characterised by distance, a feeling of being pushed away and isolated from the fundamentals of life.  But today, alienation is characterised by an overwhelming proximity to everything.  Reflection requires the construction of distance, stepping back to gain a better perspective.  At one time the spaces that sheltered reflection by allowing this distance came as a way of life.  But now, where we inhabit a globalised world where distant corners are coordinated with us in real time, we have to make a deliberate and concerted effort to create spaces for reflection.  For this, we need philosophy, as both an individual and a collaborative practice.  Without reflection, we shall (to use Baudrillard’s words) be reduced to “pure screen, a switching centre for the networks of influence”.

Socrates is quoted as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  If you do not want to just be the vehicle for someone’s life, if you wish to live and enrich your own authentic existence, you must be a philosopher and examine your life.  You need to step outside it, wander, get lost, and wonder.  You need what Rebecca Solnit calls “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”, for to wander into unknown territory requires a specific skill, like that of the explorer who has learnt to read the sun, stars, wind, and other signs of nature to know how to return from the unfamiliar back to the familiar.  The American woodsman, Daniel Boone, is reputed to have remarked that he has never been lost in the woods, although he was once slightly confused for a couple of days.  Like the explorer’s ability to read the signs of nature, philosophy is your field guide in getting lost, necessary to explore the potential of your own authenticity.

Philosophy is first, and foremost, personal.  Then you scale that conversation up to the community around you, the world you inhabit, and that is how you discover meaning and beauty, and the reason why you live.  In the words of Gernot Bohme:  “Because we ourselves are transient beings, we encounter beauty in the lighting-up of appearances which assure us of our existence. Beauty is that which mediates to us the joy of being here.”   Philosophy is one of the key necessities to truly discover the joy of being here.


My Teacher

Yesterday, my teacher

turned herself into a tree

so that I could know

how to face the wind

with the fortitude of fractal grace.


Tomorrow, my teacher

says she shall be feminity.

She wishes to show me

how my body can be a filter

that strains the tides of attachment

into an envelope of serenity.


Some days ago, my teacher

appeared as a group of children

paused in the middle of a game

to explore with wonder

a compelling new history

discovered in a mound of dirt.


Everyday, my teacher

is willing to undergo

the pain of metamorphosis

solely so that I should learn.

All she asks in return

is that I always recognise her face.

The Changing Nature of War

Our conventional notion of war is one that is fought between nation states, by uniformed armies, where the battles usually take place in open territory.  This has not been the case in the last few decades.  Wars are rarely between nation states, and one or more of the parties are what has been termed as “non-state actors”.  And the battles take place more often in the heart of cities.

Why has this change taken place?  I do not see much coverage in the media on this question. I suspect it is because of the rise of proxy wars, where nations do not directly fight each other but provide assistance to non-state actors who are targeting the enemy nation.  Proxy wars have a long history, but became established international practice during the Cold War.  Neither side could directly confront each other because of the threat of mutually assured destruction with nuclear weapons.  Therefore, they started covert wars by funding and supporting non-state actors who were willing to fight with the common enemy.

Non-state actors rarely have an air force or a navy, and would be hard pressed to have a huge army with heavy weaponry.  Therefore, they are better suited to fight guerrilla battles in urban contexts, with automatic rifles and improvised explosive devices as the primary weapons.

The problem is that the cost and trauma of war is so huge that it often comes to a stage where the major parties find it unsustainable to continue, and non-state actors are faced with a dilemma when war ends without an outright victory to either side.  When the war is between nation states, after a peace treaty (or some other reason for the war to end) each side has a territory to retreat to.  As a non-state actor has no territory to retreat to and begin life again, it has to either be provided with this territory or find a new enemy to validate its raison d’etre. Given that war often ends because of changing priorities of the patron nation state, it is not unusual for the non-state actor to turn around and bite the hand that was originally feeding it.  This means that the earlier history of war, where the lines were clearly drawn and periods of conflict were interceded with periods of peace, is no longer possible.  When non-state actors are primary players in wars, whichever side you may be on, it is hard to draw definitive lines between the good guys and the bad guys, and the state of war is perpetual.

The other question that does not receive coverage is how non-state actors equip and fund war, especially after they have stopped receiving direct aid from nation states.  It is said that ISIS runs a huge oil business through which they fund their activities.  How do they sell oil, and to whom do they sell it?  How do they receive payment?  How do they buy their weapons, and from whom do they buy them?  Clearly they have to tap into supply chains beyond themselves.  And these supply chains must interlock with the official ‘legal’ economy.  Why has media not attempted to uncover these supply chains in any major way?

Possibly, since powerful nation states have been the instigators of proxy wars, unravelling these chains will lead to uncomfortable revelations that could rock established international order.  And therefore establishment media is unwilling to touch such issues.  It appears we need a new Geneva Convention: one that prohibits proxy war.


A Thought on Responding to Terrorism

Terrorism provokes military responses to avenge it, and security controls to prevent it.  Security controls are necessary, even though they may need limits to prevent abuse.  And military responses, while rarely effective, are often claimed to be necessary.  It should be realised that security and militaristic responses to terrorism, even if necessary, are effective only in the short term.  The only long-term preventive against terrorism is to earn the goodwill of the population from which it springs.

For this we will have to abandon Lord Palmerston’s quotation that has become an operating axiom in international politics, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”  Our difficult but necessary challenge is to create a new politics of human rights that provokes nations into giving primacy in the international arena to ethical principles rather than self-centred interests.

Why Were You Silent When…?

A reaction to recent protests against intolerance in India is the claim that this protest should not be taken seriously because the protestors were silent when a similar injustice had happened earlier.  It is argued that the protestors selectively raise their voices only when the victims of injustice are of a particular type or background, and the selectivity of protest reveals hypocrisy in the protestor.  Given that these other incidents, where the protestors were allegedly silent, are unarguably incidents of injustice, this argument is often taken seriously (judging from reactions on social media).

But this is a disingenuous argument that will lead us on to a slippery and downhill slope.  It claims that you have the right to protest injustice only when you have protested every other similar injustice.  And given that it is physically impossible to protest every injustice, it amounts to saying you should not protest at all.

People are not perfect: they have interests and biases, and limitations on what they can comprehend.  So it is to be expected that every person will be selective in the causes on which they raise their voice.  And sometimes it is not the incident itself, but the context within which it occurs that makes the difference.  The voices of protest in recent times are not just against the incident of injustice but its context within two other factors: (a) statements by senior public figures, including some from within the government, that seek to justify the injustice; and (b) silence at the topmost levels of government on these statements by public figures, as well as on the importance of enforcing the rule of law.

A wise teacher of mine once advised me that when you are faced with a question to which you do not know the answer, you have two choices: a difficult one and an easy one.  The difficult choice is to admit you do not know the answer and take on the responsibility of acting on the basis of this admission.  And the easy choice, which most people take, is to expand the question, thereby avoiding it.  This is what is happening when people avoid confronting the discussion on a certain case of injustice by raising other similar cases.

We should accept that all protest is imperfect, treat each act of protest solely on its own terms, and confront the issues it raises.  If we create a climate that is conducive to this happening, then the multiplicity of protest, together with the discourse it catalyses, will automatically cast a wider net over the cases of injustice.  To insist that one must only acknowledge the perfect protestor is tantamount to denying the right or ability to protest, and this will lead to an unhealthy state of affairs in the Indian polity.

Fundamentalism: A Stepchild of the Secularism We Practice

In Vaclav Havel’s seminal essay, The Power of the Powerless, he points out that we often make an error in confronting authoritarianism.  We imagine it as a classical dictatorship, an aberration of history instigated by a specific set of people.  We think that if we limit the power of those people we will have made a major step forward in dispelling authoritarianism, whereas authoritarianism often springs from deeper historical roots that are not necessarily connected with those currently wielding power.  Recently India has seen people returning awards received from governmental institutions, concerns being aired on media platforms, and other protests from civil society.   These actions protest an intrusion into culture and education by fundamentalist right-wing forces: intrusions that include the take-over of key positions in cultural institutions, targeting of dissent with violence, and lynch mobs that result in tragic consequences.  These developments are perceived as being empowered by the tacit approval (conveyed through relative silence on enforcing the rule of law) of the Modi government, and therefore critique and resistance are targeted at Modi and his cohorts.  While this is justified, if we truly desire positive change, we must pay heed to Havel’s warning, realise that the current authoritarianism we see may have roots beyond the Modi government, and widen our critique to include this broader history.

A fundamental human impulse is to search for meaning in one’s life, anchoring one’s future in a realm that is greater than oneself.  Whether this realm is placed within religion, ritualised tradition, the arts, intellectualism, or economic status, one finds this quest for significance at the core of every human culture. It is essential that this quest be regularly confronted and modified by a greater and uncontrollable power rooted in this realm of higher meaning.  This confrontation may be with a natural environment held to be sacred as a tribe in a forest may encounter; it may be exchanges with people very different from oneself as a contemporary urban dweller may encounter; or it may the stimulation of engaging with markets or art or learning.  Without the provocation of this confrontation every day would see nothing but mirrors of oneself, there would be no force for change, and one would wind up living a life filled with routine anaesthetised by habit.  It is necessary for change to shake one’s habits now and then to provoke an alertness that sees life as what it truly is.

All cultures need to develop institutional frameworks that mediate adaptation to change. In cultures rooted in tradition, change is slow and incremental, usually involving only a few variables at a time.  The foundation of the edifice of culture is rarely given a drastic jolt.  But since Independence, India has sought to transition from being a traditional society to one that comes to terms with modernity.  And a core assumption in modernity is the inherent autonomy and freedom of individual will, which includes the freedom to depart from tradition.  This ethical principle lies at the core of Indian constitutionalism and democracy; and under this freedom the certainty of a continued process of slow incremental change has to give way to the possibility of fast radical change.  We can no longer depend on tradition to determine culture, and we must seek connection with the first principles by which culture is produced.  This will not eliminate tradition, but will redefine it, including recasting the rate at which it changes.  A further change that modernity insists upon is that if tradition contains structural barriers (such as caste, class and gender) to the universal spread of constitutional rights, then tradition must retreat to give way to the constitutional rule of law.

Modernity is a genie that cannot be put back into the bottle.   India has laid her constitutional foundations on its principles, and it is no longer possible for traditional societies to live in isolation, largely free of influence from what is happening elsewhere in the world.  The fact that the rate of urbanisation in India has begun to rise sharply will increase this rate of change, for the scale and heterogeneity of cities offer a freedom facilitated by the anonymity of urbanism, relatively shielded from recognition by traditional structures of disapproval.

When faced with radical uncertainty, it is natural to be fearful for traditional anchors of psychological security can no longer be relied upon with certainty.  And the two responses to this (to use Havel’s terms) are to live the truth or to live a lie.  To live the truth is to empower all citizens with the capacity to cope with uncertainty through an inclusive politics, founded on human rights, that designs the frameworks that (a) provide secure and easy access to the enablement offered by education, health and shelter; (b) offer opportunities for growth and development to all; (c) facilitate a public quest for significance through institutions for culture, art, and critique, and (d) protect the freedoms that anchor a constitutional modernity.  But this is a path that requires faith and persistence, for it is a slow process that can be measured only with reference to long-term results.

If one does not have the faith to persist along this path, then it is tempting to live a lie, where a predetermined ideology of religion or nationalism offers a shortcut to security.  In Havel’s words, “In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind, it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.”

This is a lie because it is a fragile and unsustainable formula for psychological security.  Given its insistence on a predetermined formula, like a biological system that cannot handle an infection to which it has not had an opportunity to build immunity, it collapses under the slightest exposure to change.  This requires that it deny the freedom that is the essence of modernity.  To admit that freedom would be to allow the option of a reality that differs, perhaps substantively, from that which the ideology articulates, and to even admit this possibility is to destabilise the foundations that define the ideology.  Therefore, those invested in the ideology protect it as if life itself is at stake, are intolerant of even the slightest dissent, and the fragility of the lie means that sustaining it invokes an escalating curve of violence.

Once the aggression that sustains this living of the lie overlaps with the centre of power, it tends to escalate in level.  And this escalation makes it natural to think of the phenomenon as attributable primarily to those who have now captured power, whereas it has roots that go back across many regimes of power.  If to oppose the lie it is necessary to live the truth, then the citizenry as a whole has to be empowered with the means to live the truth, and this requires the support of robust institutional frameworks that are both inclusive and public.  The failure to achieve this has a long history.  To mention some key failures:

  • A culture of personality driven politics, dating from the time of Indira Gandhi, where power is centralised, and progress depends more on access to political patronage than accessible and democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • A culture of political mobilisation that depends to a great extent on leveraging caste and community divisions.
  • A political tactic known as bundh, used by all the political parties over the years, where intimidation is used to shut down a city to make it appear that a cause supported by one political faction is supported by all.
  • Failure to achieve empowered local government at the level of municipalities and panchayats, an important aspect of governance because local government is the first and most accessible level of interaction between citizen and government. For a long time, local government did not even receive recognition in the Constitution of India, and received it only in the 73rd and 74th amendments in 1992.  But the web of centralised influence still persists and in practically all the states (apart from a six-month time limit on dissolution of local government) the pre-1992 status quo effectively prevails.
  • A public administration with opaque procedures, poorly defined (and often antiquated) rules, and high levels of corruption.
  • Low levels of access to health and education, exacerbated by low levels, when compared with international averages, of governmental spending (as a percentage of GDP) in these social sectors. Spending has declined further in recent years.
  • Whatever education there is tends to be oriented towards the reproduction of narrowly defined technical skills rather than towards empowering students with the ability to think critically and independently.
  • An urban regime where a combination of high land values and poor urban planning and administration force a major percentage of the population to live outside the system in informal or unregulated developments.
  • A limited public imagination of what cities should be, seeing them through the narrow lens of technical function, with little attempt to build a civic public realm that facilitates the inclusive development of culture, community, and local politics.

These failures to build an inclusive and enabling public realm have a long history that stretches back for decades, running beyond the current government, and across many different political regimes.  It has led to a stratified and fragmented society where each fragment tends to turn inward into itself, rather than outward toward the wider whole.  This inward turn also characterises civil society: that section of the country that seeks to champion secularism and liberal thinking, with conversations on these subjects largely conducted only among like-minded people.  Partha Chatterjee, in his book The Politics of the Governed, describes civil society as “the closed association of modern elite groups, sequestered from the wider popular life of the communities, walled up within enclaves of civic freedom and rational law”, and this group connects itself to the nation state through a discourse on democracy and human rights.  Chatterjee terms those excluded from civil society as “political society”, and their connections with the nation state are very different: using political mobilisation to connect with “governmental agencies pursuing multiple policies of security and welfare”, where security and welfare, rather than being universal categories, are applied uniquely to the community that seeks them.

The universal ideal of modernity occupies a homogenous sense of time that floats above historical time.  If it invokes any sense of history at all, it is one that has broken away from constraints of the past, casting a utopian gaze toward the hope of a better future.  When this ideal encounters a politics of community that does not exhibit the rational exchanges associated with civil society, it feels it has encountered another time, one that has remained pre-modern.  The space that this other group occupies is differentiated from the space of civil society primarily in terms of time, and their positioning in different realms of time means that there is no basis for dialogue.  So civil society turns inward into itself, sustaining its faith in secularism, freedom, and rights through the resonance of conversations with similar people.  It believes that this defence of democracy and rights protects a space of modernity where those who inhabit this other time will eventually ‘catch up’ and enter, so it does not seek genuine engagement with the other.  Structural barriers that obstruct the other from entering this space receive scant attention.  An exception are a small set of activist NGO’s and groups, whose core focus is a recognition of difference to cast attention toward empowering the disempowered other.  Some of them fall prey to the temptation of a patronising and disempowering gaze of expertise, but many of them do promote a genuine engagement.  But such engagement that spans across borders of difference is too small in scale to make a substantive difference to the nature of the public realm, and where it does begin to make a difference, it is often persecuted by the structures of power.

This fragmentation of society, with civil society being just one among many other fragments, has meant that the quest for significance that forms the core of culture does not happen in the public realm, and has consequently moved into private spaces where it encounters similarity rather than difference.  And a quest for public significance predicated on the privacy of similarity forms the foundation for living the lie of fundamentalism.  Twenty five years ago, Octavio Paz issued a prescient warning on this trend in his Nobel Lecture of 1990, “Although all societies are historical, each one has lived under the guidance and inspiration of a set of metahistorical beliefs and ideas. Ours is the first age that is ready to live without a metahistorical doctrine; whether they be religious or philosophical, moral or aesthetic, our absolutes are not collective but private. It is a dangerous experience. It is also impossible to know whether the tensions and conflicts unleashed in this privatization of ideas, practices and beliefs that belonged traditionally to the public domain will not end up by destroying the social fabric. Men could then become possessed once more by ancient religious fury or by fanatical nationalism. It would be terrible if the fall of the abstract idol of ideology were to foreshadow the resurrection of the buried passions of tribes, sects and churches. The signs, unfortunately, are disturbing.”

If the signs were disturbing to Paz in 1990, they appear threateningly alarming to all of us now, for mainstream politics has recognised this trend and succumbed to the temptation of leveraging it as a strategy for mobilising votes.  And once such politics is successful in this strategy for achieving power, these hitherto buried passions begin to receive support and sanction to emerge publicly.  The overlap between fundamentalism and official structures of power is the new development that India has seen over the last one year.  But the fragmentation of the public realm and the consequent privatisation of the quest for significance is a primary cause of fundamentalism, and this long history is not receiving attention from civil society.

Civil society must recognise and critique its isolation from the bulk of country.  It must engage in action (both intellectual and political) to connect with communities very different from itself, so that the quest for significance is brought back into the public realm.  This is a project that is ambitious but necessary, and until it makes progress, the limits to our current conceptualisation of secularism, freedom and rights will continue to fan the flames of fundamentalism.