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The Reach of Reason’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Amartya Sen’s characteristic lucidity and learning are so well displayed in “The Reach of Reason” [NYR, July 20, 2000] that one hesitates to dispute his eminently reasonable propositions. Nevertheless, there are two points that lead me to take issue with his formulations, however much I may be drawn to his conclusions.

First, by way of illustrating the perils of contrastive definition, Professor Sen remarks that “Indian religious literature such as the Bhagavad-Gita or the Tantrik texts, which are identified as differing from secular writings seen as ‘Western,’ elicits much greater interest in the West than do other Indian writings,” notably the atheistic and agnostic literatures in Sanskrit and Pali. I know little about the Western reception of Tantra; but the Bhagavad-Gita has been valued at least as often for its resemblance to “Western” monotheistic tradition as for its supposed difference. Introducing the first translation into a Western language of the Gita by Charles Wilkins in 1785, Warren Hastings called it “a single exception, among all the known religions of mankind, of a theology accurately corresponding with that of the Christian dispensation, and most powerfully illustrating its fundamental doctrines.”

Wilkins subtitled his rendition “The Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon” [sic], implicitly underscoring the text’s generic affinities with Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion and hence with a form of deist anticlericalism. Similarly (as is well known) Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman looked to the Gita to confirm their own sense that sublime inspiration cut across the distinction between “religion” and “literature.” Far from shoring up a contrast between the secular West and the spiritual East, that is, the Bhagavad-Gita has regularly offered support to critical or heterodox currents within Euro-American culture, whether they regard themselves as rationalistic or Romantic.

More generally, I find myself troubled by Professor Sen’s recurrent delineation of “the reach of reason” by means of a contrast with “the marshy land of tradition.” The trope associates “reason” with various projects of reclamation and civic construction, a link no doubt welcome to the Emperor Akbar, but one too easily given to polemical hardening, with Firmly Grounded Reason on this side and the swamps of irrationalism on the other. This is far from Sen’s intent, to be sure: What else can his naming of Ashoka, Akbar, and Alberuni be, but an effort to provide naked reason with a variety of local habitations, if not many mansions? The enumeration of indigenous authorities and friends, however, strikes me as itself a traditional gesture. It acknowledges the embeddedness of reason within certain contexts and styles of social exchange. It creates a shared frame of reference—a common room?—out of a few, somewhat hazy, allusions. Although Sen pays homage to Reason as a force of transcendence (“it helps us to transcend ideology and blind belief”), the grounds of his discourse may be marshier than he admits.

At issue is the degree of deference to be accorded “tradition.” Sen, with Enlightenment vehemence, terms such deference “blind faith.” Others might call it civic trust or simple respect. In any case, a heightened awareness of what Reason owes the past might lead to a greater appreciation of its complex social ecology, the disparate microclimates and adaptive niches where critical exchanges take place. Indeed, it might be wiser to think of reasoning as a verb, conjugated in the plural, than to raise it to the status of imperial noun. For whatever the ultimate reach of Reason, it will certainly continue to exceed its grasp, and the wetlands of sociability will remain more hospitable than the prospect of heaven.

Rick Livingston

Department of Comparative Studies

Ohio State University

Columbus, Ohio

Amartya Sen replies:

With many of the particular arguments in Rick Livingston’s engaging and forceful letter, I am in complete agreement. However, I am less sure of some of his general conclusions.

Livingston points out that many Western observers have found the Bhagavad-Gita (or Gita, for short) to have affinities with Western writings. I entirely agree. There are, in fact, many parallels. (“Monotheism,” to which Livingston refers, is not, I think, the central issue here—that characteristic is shared by several other Hindu texts, including significant parts of the Upanishads.) As it happens, in a recent paper called “Consequential Evaluation and Practical Reason,”1 I have discussed the close resemblance between Krishna’s advocacy, in the Gita, of a duty-based ethics and the theory of moral obligation to be found in some classic European works, for example, in Immanuel Kant’s exposition of practical reason. I also commented there on T.S. Eliot’s citation of Krishna’s view on the importance of doing one’s duty irrespective of consequences. (Eliot summarized his thought as follows: “And do not think of the fruit of action./Fare forward.”)

All this is clearly not in any tension at all with my argument. I wrote that despite the fact that “Sanskrit and Pali have a larger atheistic and agnostic literature than exists in any other classical tradition” (and also extensive writings on “nonreligious subjects, from mathematics, epistemology, and natural science to economics and linguistics”), “Indian religious literature such as the Bhagavad-Gita or the Tantrik texts, which are identified as differing from secular writings seen as ‘Western,’ elicits much greater interest in the West than do other Indian writings.” There is a need here to distinguish clearly between two different statements: (1) the claim, which I did make, that in common Western perception secular ideas are seen as “Western,” and (2) the claim, which I did not make, that “Western” ideas are all secular (or seen to be secular) and thus Indian religious ideas are never seen as having parallels with Western thought.

As it happens, even within the Gita, there is an interesting contrast which has relevance to my point. This is between Krishna’s invoking the demands of duty (indeed religious duty) irrespective of their consequences, and Arjuna’s contrary—and more worldly—argument that the demands of such consequence-independent duty cannot override our love of humanity and the need to take note of the actual consequences of our actions. Arjuna, the undisputed military hero on the side of the wronged Pandavas, argued, in particular, that, in view of the extensive killings that would result, he could not justify participating in the war that is about to take place, despite the recognized duties associated with fighting for a good cause and the obligations of his position as a leader and a member of the warrior caste. (“We who understand the evils of such a war must try to avoid it.”) I argued in my article in The Journal of Philosophy that Arjuna’s consequence-sensitive reasoning against Krishna’s theory of inescapable moral obligation can also be the beginning of a critique of duty-based moral imperatives in general, including Kantian ones.

Such divisions among ideas do not correspond to their regions of origin. It is interesting, in the light of this contrast within the Gita (and, more generally, within the ancient epic Mahabharata, of which the Gita is only a small part), that while Krishna’s arguments about duty in general and religious duty in particular have been frequently cited in Western discussions, the contrary arguments and other heterodoxies presented in the same text have not drawn much Western attention. (Some of the heterodox arguments in the Mahabharata are well discussed in Bimal Matilal’s Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata.2)

The real issue is therefore neither the neglect of Indian—or other non-Western—ideas in general nor any claim that these ideas are always seen as being in contrast with Western thought (which is simply not so), but rather the selective neglect of Indian epistemology, secular ethics, and science, and the neglect as well of the many and various expressions in Indian thought of skepticism about religion and tradition. This practice rests on a false contrast, which has had much acceptance, that sees the West as almost unique in fostering scientific reasoning, secular ethics, etc. (in addition, of course, to its own religious thought). I gave some illustrations of how this alleged contrast has been influential, and could have given many other examples (including the unmomentous but interesting fact that until quite recently the Harvard Coop used to place all books on Indian philosophy on shelves marked “Religion”). I also illustrated the persistence of the same imagined contrast in the writings of some leading contemporary Western cultural and social theorists, including such well-known scholars as Gertrude Himmelfarb and Samuel Huntington. (For example, the alleged contrast relates quite closely to Himmelfarb’s clearly articulated belief that ideas of “justice,” “right,” “reason,” and “love of humanity” are “predominantly, perhaps even uniquely, Western values.”)

Rick Livingston also criticizes the contrast between reason and what Akbar called “the marshy land of tradition.” It would indeed be a silly contrast if it were seen as a dichotomy, entailing that traditions were always in conflict with reason. But Akbar used the contrast to argue that the acceptance of even received traditions cannot be independent of reason and that we have to subject all propositions, even traditional beliefs, to reasoned scrutiny. This contrast, which was very important for Akbar, was based on his extensive inquiries into world history, and comparative religions (remarkable enough for a person who was formally illiterate, but spent a good deal of time in his later life listening to readings of texts, and conversing and arguing with erudite scholars such as Abul Fazl as well as exponents of different religions). As I mentioned in my article, Akbar did accept many of the received traditions (he remained on the whole a believing Muslim); but he argued strongly for the need to derive one’s decisions from “reason and choice, not from ‘blind faith,’ or from ‘the marshy land of tradition.’”

Livingston also points out that my discussion of the ideas of Ashoka, Akbar, Alberuni, and others indicates an underlying belief that “naked reason” can be fruitfully discerned in “a variety of local habitations.” This is indeed so, and I am even willing to argue that any exercise of practical reason is inescapably linked to particular conditions and concerns. The central point is that these particulars are not distributed around the world according to regions, in line with the grand distinctions among “civilizations,” such as that between “Western” and “Indian” backgrounds, which have figured so prominently in theories linked to an alleged “clash of civilizations.” There are many debates within each civilization, and they cannot accurately be seen as debates between different civilizations.

  1. 1

    The Journal of Philosophy, September 2000.

  2. 2

    Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989.

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