Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ramchandra Gandhi's Gachchibowli Lectures

Ramchandra Gandhi’s Gachchibowli Lectures

Probal Dasgupta

This exposition of the philosophical position developed in Ramchandra Gandhi’s later work is essentially built around his Gachchibowli lectures. From January to April 1992, he spoke twice a week, at the department of philosophy on the University of Hyderabad’s Gachchibowli campus, at what was then the edge of Hyderabad city. The location suffices to identify these lectures uniquely. At the time of his regular, and longer, full-time appointment at the university, its philosophy department had been located at its Golden Threshold campus in the heart of town.

The present exposition of Ramchandra Gandhi’s 1992 lectures is thematically related to his Sita’s Kitchen (Gandhi 1992), which he had finished drafting by September 1991. My review article based on that book, ‘Antifundamentalist investigations’, expounds certain concepts at greater length (Dasgupta 1993). Some passages in the present essay are based on conversations with Ramchandra Gandhi outside the lecture room about these and related matters. The material is presented here in the form of twenty-two segments from A to V for convenience of exposition and reference.

A> Philosophy is not thoughts about thoughts, not texts about texts, or not these alone. Philosophy is, or is also, thinking about thinking, or speaking about systematically, often even overtly, thought-laden speaking. The core of the enterprise is to track perceptively the most perceptive strands of your thinking, especially as this thinking is revealed in conversation, and to not edit or censor your admiration for the deeper enthusiasms and admirations that become apparent.

B> Some of these deeper admirations go back to your childhood. Discourse is a constitutive fact about you. And it is a constitutive epistemic fact about discourse that every adult speaker and writer has been a child. This fact is more directly available as a resource for philosophical discourse than our shared mortality, which we do not see with such publicly invokable clarity, or than the fact that we were all born, with which we have no discursive continuity.

As children, we learn how to listen and to speak. Reading and writing as relationships with the public language appear later. In the intimate language-crucible that the mother-infant dyad immerses the infant in, what is invoked is, deep down in what gets said or sung to the child, a textual access to the spiritual legacy, to the inheritance of listening. But at the moments of this early access, the infant is only intermittently, and even then barely, out of the state of slumber. Slumber does not interrupt this access to the world, but is at the heart of the encounter with reality.

C> That we have the courage to sleep embodies our knowledge that there are no constitutively hostile others. Ramchandra Gandhi deployed his considerable histrionic skills to make it apparent that we fall asleep in settings in which we might reasonably expect to be attacked; that the postures in which we sleep often ask for trouble; that we nonetheless allow our sleep to affirm a basic, unexamined, intrinsic trust in the ability and willingness of the cosmos to keep us going, to see us through our sleep.

By falling asleep, by bidding farewell to yet another particular interlude of wakeful reason, we also say of this reason that it persists with only apparent discontinuity from vigil to vigil, and that sleep punctuates it. This punctuation co-constitutes our mindfulness. The wakeful kind of attention that we sometimes take for attention simpliciter is in reality one strand of a cognitive activity whose waves take us through dream-sleep, deep sleep and the turiiya state as well, in a rhythm that only expository convenience sometimes encourages us to portray in terms of the waking attention alone. To surrender entirely to that abbreviation is as serious an error as to imagine that discourse consists of words alone and can possibly exist without punctuation, pauses or much longer silences.

Ramchandra Gandhi addressed a multidepartmental Gachchibowli audience in September 1991, in preparation for his 1992 assignment. On that occasion Suresh Chandra contested this point about sleep, proposing that sleep had no constitutive role and that a rational life-form with a sleep-free schedule was perfectly intelligible. Ramchandra Gandhi replied that Suresh Chandra’s argument rested on a brute force assertion that the ‘sleepless rational being’ image was indeed intelligible; the shared pool of commonly held, publicly consultable intuitions to which disagreeing philosophers are entitled to refer an issue for adjudication, he contended, does not confirm Suresh Chandra’s assertion that such an image is indeed part of the pool. Recall that one is not seeking an image of a maverick individual (whose body generates its own amphetamine) postulated as a deformed or distorted deviation from a norm, but an image of an entire species of sleepless rationals engaged in social living.

D> The mother is present, or is the presence, as her infant drifts from nearly full-time sleep into the mother tongue. You can use the idiom of ‘early childhood caregivers’ if you have special reasons to choose such diction. But you are then commenting on systematic day care arrangements that either give relief to a particular hard-pressed mother or give surrogate assistance to a child whose motherless condition makes such help necessary. If one takes the description of such special arrangements so seriously that one substitutes it for one’s primary reference to the role of the mother in one’s conceptualizations, one lapses into a crucial error. One cannot attain true generality by formally placing a primary normal reality and its exceptional, special substitutes in the same basket and calling the result a category. It is ridiculous – and a cause for some concern, about whether philosophers making such a move know what they are about – to exchange the term ‘mother tongue’ for a mechanically arrived at formal generalization like ‘tongue of the most salient early childhood caregiver’.

The mother-child dyad is the medium of a pure, prepersonal space of nascent conversational potential, which is a metaperceptual a priori. This perspective makes it meaningful to ask if constitutive level threats are real – by which one means threats from any adversaries who are true others in the sense of being implacable in principle, of being metaphysically unavailable for conversation and negotiation. It is in relation to this perspective that the question seeks a dualist or non-dualist resolution as a telos of one’s philosophizing.

The dualist resolution rests on fear/ caution or doubt/ skepticism, and amounts to saying: Who knows? Maybe there are monsters. Maybe you are a monster! Let me secure my flanks against unspecified threats. Only afterwards will I decide, within severe limits, to allow dialogue between myself and a few conversation partners. I may develop fundamental differences with them; if I do, I will reclassify them as threats, as beyond the pale of possible dialogue.

Dualistic thinking is not to be simply sneezed at. It relies on and expands the default dehaatmavaada or physical realism whose status as a child’s point of departure all philosophizing must acknowledge. This default status of the basis of dualism once led non-dualist formulations to such an aphorism as ‘when in the practical realm, by all means follow the reasoning of naïve realists’, although non-dualism today can hope to work its position out without quite so major a concession to the dualist position.

Obviously any philosophy has to deal with the massive opaque presence of non-interlocutors – with society and the state, where opacity seems to encircle us. In order to bring these realities closer to our conceptual understanding, it helps if we view the father and formal education as initiating the child (not the infant) into social language after the early initiation by the mother into the intimate tongue. (Those of us who have a problem with the term ‘father’ may use in its stead whatever it is that they would regard as a rational reconstruction; we reserve the right not to agree that talk of fathers is irrational!) But the metaperceptual a priori that the mother has put in place provides the canvas on which all this gets drawn.

E> One’s basic relatedness with apparent others, at a level that idealizes on the basis of typical adult experience, invokes the form of a guest-host dyad. As we read Ramchandra Gandhi on hospitality, it helps if we bear in mind the Grice and Strawson approaches to speech act theory, but the resonances become easier to perceive if we also read authors like Steiner who have explored the thematics of guesthood. For Ramchandra Gandhi acquired his initial concerns during his doctoral studies in India, when he steeped himself in Whitehead and Kierkegaard; and he later recontextualized these concerns in the idiom of the formal philosophy of speech acts and conversations. In his later work he brought the thematics of guesthood to bear on conversation partners who alternate between the roles of guest and host.

In his Gachchibowli period he proposes that statements flowing from guestliness have aesthetic imperatives to follow that embody the acceptance of hospitality. A box in a cupboard, for instance, or a cupboard in a room, niche themselves meaningfully by occupying a reasonable, non-aggressive amount of space. If a guest begins to grab more than a moderate, need-congruent helping of the host’s space and attention, the relationship comes under strain. A province is a guest of the nation, though the nation is not other than the totality of all its provinces. We are all fundamentally each other’s guests. Pre-fundamentally we are all guests of the hospitable cosmos – a hospitality we have to read with care, in a reconstrual exercise that involves revising the initial dehaatmavaada in our naïve reading of ‘what there is’.

F> The theological story that tells of God and souls (the soul, jiiva, is a concept distinct from the self, aatman) and of saving souls visualizes a heaven. Heaven is an otherworldly version of the place we normally call America. One does not, however, need to visualize that other world. The point is to notice that there just is no real other. Adversaries become, are recast as, potential dialogue partners when opacity is seriously faced and construed as conversation-enriching performances within the transparent.

The other world of the theologian is not the only other world we need to notice. The dualist philosopher’s reductionist subworld too – the one populated only by real factors and devoid of epiphenomena that can be explained in terms of these real factors – is a different other world, no less of an ‘other’ world than belief in the old gods and heavens.

G> Given this conversation-borne articulation of non-dualism, logical austerity makes it unnecessary and thus inappropriate to postulate a single communicator version of non-dualism, though of course ancient Indian thinkers had good contextual reasons for making the moves they did. Non-dualism as we articulate it only needs to thematize singleness of valid and unbroken communicability. It is enough if we deny real otherness; we can and therefore must recognize the specificity of a plurality of individual communicators.

For a useful image of this plurality, consider the thought that we are all photographs of the self. When photos of yourself are destroyed before your eyes, you feel a twinge that differs in quality from the sight of other destructions. You are also your photos.

H> Does it make any difference whether you take apparent otherness for real, intrinsic otherness? Yes it does.

To affirm real otherness places you in a stance that makes nuclear annihilation a threat you may want to preempt by preparing for nuclear war yourself. This involves regarding as intelligible the enterprise of the nuclear arms race and of ecocidal industrialism.

I> To propose nuclear war, however, is to miss the point of the kshatriya legacy, and to miss the point that the cosmos is a good host.

The kshatriyas of old created a tradition whose details, positive and negative, need to be read in the context of an overarching imperative of nurturing, cherishing, supporting a social order seen as sustainable. If a classical kshatriya were to hear of nuclear war as an option, he would be shocked out of his wits. He would affirm his commitment to the continuation of meaningful life on earth and would work for arrangements reflective of the fundamental unthinkability of nuclear war.

The hospitable cosmos, explored at point E, sets a hostly example that should so strongly encourage guestly behaviour on our part as to make it obligatory. That language is possible at all – as mutual renunciation of the causal efficacy of unspeakable and unspeaking strategic action – is a cause for celebration in every exercise of this wonderful freedom.

Life is so much trouble that living would not be worthwhile at all, were it not for the fact that life is wonderful.

J> To try to understand these matters involves not simply rehearsing the tenets of a doctrine, even of a doctrine that may elicit our agreement. We must look at deviations from the ideal conversation in a Gricean exercise. Our thinking naturally focuses our attention also on failures, and a serious non-dualist must, in the face of apparent otherness saliently apparent in failure, respond by taking action so that the truth of the non-dualist intuition is manifested more clearly in the visible realities around us.

Thus, it should matter to us that mutual hospitality often breaks down. Consider a particularly comical example – the persistently inhospitable contemporary Delhi-dweller, who, when you attempt a visit to rekindle an old friendship, briefly looks away from the television screen to register your arrival. “You have come?” the host or hostess says, and indicating a suitable seat suggests, “Please do sit down,” and resumes television watching.

You wait for this to end, but meanwhile you do your duty as a fellow conscript in modern India’s army of television watchers. You sit shoulder to shoulder with your fellow warrior, accepting the terms on which you too have been mobilized. Then you begin to fidget, and make it clear you are leaving. “You are going then?” your host or hostess asks. “Okay then, do come again, bye.” As you take in the entire experience, you reflect on the erosion of hospitality in the age of television.

K> One possible remedy, as an initial strategy, is to reverse the priorities in a bid to undistort the distortion, and in order to symbolize mutuality by bringing out the polar character of the dyadic construction. For instance, when a young atheist who wishes to render ‘humanism’ attractive in a festivity-focused social context by instituting humanist festivals asks Ramchandra Gandhi to propose some form and content for such festivals, the latter replies, “I would advocate an enterprise that develops a festive humanism instead of first trying to come up with particular humanist festivals.”

L> When asked if he believes even residually in the labour theory of value, he replies, “I am inclined to believe in the value theory of labour. Traditional peasants have no rational grounds for expecting their arduous toil to consistently lead to a good harvest; it is their unshaken faith in the intrinsic value of their labour that makes them keep working as peasants. Surely a labour theory of value, if it is not balanced by this converse, offers too flat a picture, an anthropologically naïve picture of labour.”

M> The strategy that drives this exercise may lend itself to the following specification: One reexamines the direction in which the intercategorial conceptual arrow is pointing. One tries turning the arrow around as a gambit that may sharpen one’s perception of hospitality – and may more generally maximize perceptibility. In other words, the point is to not allow dyadic formats to lapse into a permanently unidirectional arrow.

N> As we resort to this strategy, it is important to note that the point of the exercise is to reverse the direction of the arrow connecting one image to another in one’s imagining, and thus to remind oneself that one imagines the image into a percept. To look for an objective reality that is whatever it is, regardless of how we image it, is a passive desire. ‘Reality’ is a form of imagining in which you imagine that you are not imagining.

When we philosophize, when we think about thinking, we cannot afford to lose sight of the core fact that thinking is imagination-steered.

O> One of the important discursive resources for joint and therefore rational meta-imagining is the essential, constitutive relatedness of wakeful adult thinking to sleep, and to the universally memory-accessible child register.

P> Hence the major presence of narrative in Ramchandra Gandhi’s later philosophizing. He employed this resource to dissolve some of the avoidable opacities that often turn discursive analytical prose into a strategy for avoiding perception.

Q> One strand of inquiry in the pragmatics of language use has argued that polite speech is speech that takes the resources of language entirely seriously. Polite speaking, in its slight exaggeration of the boundary between my will and yours, emphatically renounces the option of browbeating or coercion.

Ramchandra Gandhi’s very different use of the resources of pragmatics is consistent with and amounts to an amplification of this strand of work. He extends the philosophy of language towards a philosophy of respect, of taking seriously. Such work sanctifies sanctification inasmuch as respect is metahospitality. In a language that takes language as renunciation of coercion seriously, his work proposes to expand sanctity so that it encompasses our intuitions about grace and beauty.

R> This taking seriously accepts as its point of departure the respect at the heart of the child or pupil’s initial dependence on the parent or teacher, but is not confined to this point of departure. In its full generality, it takes on the challenge of developing a philosophy of language as the site of respect. In the absence of a philosophy that constitutes the human person as a worthy giver and taker of respect, one has only instrumental access to human rights in one’s political or economic philosophy – hardly an accountable way of handling these vital issues.

S> The standard proceduralist philosophizing sanctifies desanctification. Despite the usefulness of this manoeuvre as an educational tool, once it is enshrined as a cardinal principle it lapses into unintelligibility, for such a move leaves opaque the sanctification of the initial desanctification, the enchantment with the motif of disenchantment.

Sanctification can by its nature afford to be moderate. Moderation gives us the license to be ‘moderately moderate’ and thus to resort to occasional extreme statements or strategies as part of this overall moderation. But extremeness as an enterprise does not logically allow for an ‘extremely extreme’ special case that would cancel moderation’s disenfranchisement under the overarching assumptions of extremeness. At this level, moderation is better at including than extremeness can ever become. And desanctification, embodying as it does an impatient reaction to excessive or inappropriate sanctification, is condemned to extremeness. Thus, the moderate is the site of choice at which we become free to imagine the extreme as a special case of the moderate.

U> Moderation is fundamentally open to conversation. Ramchandra Gandhi spoke of the to-and-froishness of conversation, invoking themes that come to life in a rich body of work on poetry as an embodiment of partnership and mutual echoing in conversation. Poetry, at an irreducible level, is the home of the imagination. So are other arts, a point expounded in Ramchandra Gandhi’s later book on painting, Svaraj.

V> It is worrying to see how many of us miss the point that economics-focused modes of reasoning act out a positivist fantasy in total unawareness of the fantasy-laden character of such ‘theorizing’.

It is clear that many philosophers, for reasons they leave unexamined, have allowed the current preferences and priorities of the social sciences to occlude their vision and work. This colonization will be dismantled in due course. Quite apart from their colonization of philosophy, social scientists themselves will, some day, wrestle their way past their no doubt pedagogically useful quantitative revolutions towards a capacity for social scientific accountability to poetry. When the need for that accountability comes to be seen by many thinkers as non-negotiably, non-postponably urgent, the work of Ramchandra Gandhi will be seen for what it is, as pioneering and central.


Dasgupta, Probal. 1993. Anti-fundamentalist investigations. JICPR 11:1.139-51. [Review of Gandhi 1992.]

Gandhi, Ramchandra. 1992. Sita’s Kitchen: A Testimony of Faith and Inquiry. New York: State University of New York Press.


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