Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part V

[We conclude by suggesting that incorporation of indigenous knowledge-systems in the mainstream is one urgent measure to save the species and the planet]

It seems plausible to hold, then, that the most progressive, enlightened forms of thinking on education fail to offer a sustainable perspective on the survival of the species. In some grim historical sense, the prospects seem irreversible because the so-called enlightened conception of knowledge, which is primarily responsible for bringing the species to the brink of extinction, is uncritically assumed to be the only one we have. In fact, liberal education, with its species-terminating edifice of knowledge, is often ascribed absolute value, since any alternative form of education is viewed as either inconceivable or politically incorrect.
What is missed in these universalist proclamations in favour of liberal education is that an entire range of indigenous knowledge systems have existed simultaneously, but in almost total isolation from the modernist liberal knowledge systems. These are not ‘primitive’ or ‘infantile’ systems of knowledge requiring further stages of development. These systems are current ‘adult’ systems of knowledge with their own high culture that have been sustained in favourable environmental niches for thousands of years. If liberal education can claim its historical validity by referring back to the Vedas, Sutras, Euclid and Plato, so do the indigenous systems, except that their classical heritage has remained unnamed in the absence of global propaganda. These systems define the alternative forms of what it is to be human as a species. The only problem is that these systems, with their construction of God of Niyamgiri and reverence for rivers, are viewed as inconsistent with the modernist outlook. But, that certainly is a problem for the modernist, not the Dongria Kondhs.
In other words, a real solution to the issue of survival requires that humans learn to progressively forget—or, at least, engage in severe criticism of—the knowledge systems currently advanced in the most dominating centres of learning. If indigenous knowledge systems, currently resisting extraction of hydrocarbons and bauxite from forests, are our primary route for survival, every bit of knowledge beyond indigenous knowledge must be subjected to serious critique for their relevance.
I am aware of the possible inconsistency in what I am proposing. While the subliminal suggestion is to defray action on all forms of so-called modernist high-culture, are we not led into this forlorn conclusion precisely by dint of the wonderful scientific work conducted by Mayr and his colleagues at Harvard, which has an annual budget of several billion dollars? So, is it not imperative that solutions to the dangers posed by the culture of enlightenment are to be found within enlightenment itself? Obviously, there cannot be an immediately satisfying answer to this question either way. So, let me ask a series of rhetorical questions to conclude the discussion.
Can we not view the otherwise wonderful results from Harvard as a reductio to the effect that this knowledge need not be pursued anymore? Elizabeth Kolbert has remarked with some irony that let us not ask the scientific question of when the human species might become extinct, because we might be extinct before we reach a definite scientific answer (Drake 2015). Sensible people have started advocating the disarming of the planet. Does that not amount to the demand that the knowledge systems that go into the construction of weaponry—from pistols to hydrogen bombs—be deliberately set aside? I am told that the Japanese monarchs refused to introduce guns in their army for centuries even though the Europeans have been trying hard to sell the lucrative technology. The reason was, in a battle with swords, you have to face another human being from close quarters; so you are compelled to confront the moral issue of killing a human being. In a gun-battle from a distance, you do not face that moral choice.
  Why should that argument not extend to the knowledge of making cars and aeroplanes, since these technologies require extraction of bauxite from revered mountains? Once we get the feel of the mess into which modern living has pushed the planet, why should we stop at cars and aeroplanes? Why not computers, mobile phones, skyscrapers, libraries, orchestras, art museums, cities and asphalt roads? The children of the gods of Niyamgiri lived without them happily for thousands of years. Exactly what argument do we have for not emulating their lives in full?

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part IV

[In this section, we discuss the radical views on education of two non-Western thinkers Rabindranath Tagore and Paulo Freire to see if their projects meets the demand for incorporating indigenous knowledge]

Education for fullness
Tagore was deeply troubled by the extreme elitism of the British-enforced education system that catered only to the children of the privileged. As is well known, he was also deeply critical of the kind of education that was imparted, the rote learning that Freire later identified as the ‘banking’ method. Instead, Tagore advocated an enlightened and elaborate version of education for fullness: sarbangin shiksha. This included not just the education of the intellect, combining the most universal aspects of Western and Eastern high culture, but also the education of feeling for the other that extended to feeling for nature and cosmos. In this sense, he criticised the one-sidedness of an education that only imparted bookish knowledge in a narrow pragmatic sense. His conception of education did not reject the ideals of Western enlightenment, but sought to embed it in a wider conception of learning that, he thought, embraced the whole human (Mukherjee 2013).
   There is no convincing evidence that the knowledge systems for ‘fullness’ that constituted Tagore’s conception of sarbangin shiksha included the knowledge systems of the unlettered even in its margins. So, his lament about the absence of the poor from the field of education may be viewed as a ‘humanitarian’ lament, not really a ‘humanistic’ one, to use a distinction suggested by Freire and to which I return.
In fact, there is evidence that Tagore viewed the poor and the marginalised as ignorant, dull and voiceless, to whom language needs to be imparted, and hope needs to be aroused in those broken hearts. And, the knowledge that is supposed to enlighten the poor is the highculture knowledge already imparted to the elite. Needless to say, this task of pulling the poor out of their misery through sarbangin shiksha required novel educational practices such as teaching in the mother tongue, using local flora and fauna as examples, active agency of the learner, the tapovana model of shunning bounded classrooms and holding learning sessions in the open air, etc. Yet, the knowledge that was so imparted consisted of the products of the elite high-culture, from the upanishads to modern science, via literature, art and sophisticated musical forms.
I think the point about the ultimately elitist character of Tagore’s otherwise enlightened conception of education can be strengthened with an example of the novel educational practice followed in Tagore’s school. I could not locate any official document for this, but I can recount this curious practice from my own experience as a student in Tagore’s school at Santiniketan. Every afternoon, children from Patha Bhavana were transported in the university bus in batches to Silpa Sadana at the rural setting of Sriniketan, the location for rural education and reconstruction. There, we sat down on the floor to learn about woodcraft, papier mâché, basket weaving, lac work, etc, from the ill-clad and impoverished, but highly skilled village artisans. During that period of active hands-on learning, some of the rural folk were our teachers. Our education, thus, included some of the knowledge systems of the unlettered, and a reversal of class roles. No wonder this novel education practice was soon abandoned due to logistical reasons.
Yet, the point remains that the appreciation and adoption of rural culture was restricted to the ‘crafts’ of a folk nature. Elite, high culture still formed the central ingredient for the development of sensitive intellect. Similarly, farmers are sometimes consulted about various agricultural practices such as variety of seeds, condition of soil, multiple cropping, organic fertilisers, etc. This is the traditional domain of the unlettered where knowledge is accumulated through sheer practice over centuries. Beyond this, rural culture (not to mention tribal culture)—except ‘folk art’—is not ascribed any enlightenment value. The tribals, the indigenous people, are not even in view. They are curiosities hiding in hills and forests.
Humanistic education
Several decades later, Paulo Freire, in his classic work, Pedagogy of theOppressed (1970/2005), addressed the issue of resistance to the ideologies and institutions of the elite more directly. The task for education, he felt, was to reverse the process of dehumanisation in which the oppressed found themselves:
The struggle for humanisation, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons ... is possible only because dehumanisation although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed (Freire 2005, 44).
Following George Lukacs, Freire elaborates that a revolutionary educational practice aims to ‘explain to the masses their own action,’ to clarify and illuminate that action, both regarding its relationship to the objective facts by which it was prompted, and regarding its purposes (53). The more the people unveil this challenging reality, which is to be the object of their transforming action, the more critically they enter that reality. In this way they are ‘consciously activating the subsequent development of their experiences’ (53). Freire insists this form of education to be essentially pre-revolutionary, such that the oppressed can proceed to a revolutionary overthrow of the unjust order. Freire, thus, goes beyond Tagore to view education not only as a humanitarian mode to include the oppressed, but as one which triggers humanisation of the oppressed by enabling them to erect the other side of the barricade. Let us call this mode of education the proletarian mode.
It is unclear if the envisaged overthrow of the unjust order will in fact enhance the prospects for the species as a whole. The humanised education achieved through the struggle of the working masses will no doubt usher in an era of proletarian freedom. But, will it ensure survival for all? The answer will depend on the content of the proletarian mode, the knowledge systems so advocated. Here, the prospects do not appear to be as revolutionary as the emancipation of a section of people.
There is little evidence that pre-revolutionary education practices among the masses, undertaken by revolutionary forces, address the issue raised here. In his writings, Freire makes frequent references to politico-educational work of Mao during the pre-revolutionary phase. Following these examples and their implementation during, say, the struggles in Yan’an and Vietnam, certain forms of educational practices have emerged. For example, following lessons from Vietnam, Maoists in India have organised Young Communist Mobile Schools (or, Basic Communist Training Schools), which host select groups of 25–30 tribal children in the age group of 12–15 years.
These children receive intensive training for six months in a curriculum consisting of basic concepts of Marxism–Leninism–Maoism, Hindi and English, mathematics, social science, different types of weapons, computers, etc (recall their age group). Needless to say, lessons are conducted in Gondi, and local song and dance forms are used to motivate the children. Beyond this, there is no evidence that the ancient knowledge systems of the tribals form any significant part of the curriculum, even though the pupils concerned consist entirely of tribal children. In fact, much of the curriculum, including lessons in modern science go directly against the foundations of tribal culture; especially, weapons training involving not bows and arrows, but automatic rifles, light machine guns, high-powered explosive devices, and the like (Mukherji 2012). While the children in mainstream India sit through modernist curriculum under the aegis of not-so-subtle capitalist propaganda, tribal children sit through roughly the same curriculum, even if they have been asked to wear Maoist lenses. Education is imparted in the proletarian mode, not in the indigenous mode. It is difficult to dispel the impression that modernist educational thinking has deeply penetrated even the most revolutionary minds.

(To be concluded)

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part III

[In this section we report on indigenous resistance to plunder of the planet. The resistance includes natives in Canada resisting extraction of shale gas, and adivasis in Niyamgiri opposing mining of aluminium. It appears to be a conflict between two systems of knowledge]

Indigenous resistance
Most importantly, for our purposes, Chomsky also sketched an alternative to these entrenched ideologies by applauding the resistance against these policies raised by the indigenous people congregating at the margins of Canada’s much-flaunted multicultural society. ‘It is pretty ironic,’ Chomsky remarked, ‘that the so-called “least advanced” people are the ones taking the lead in trying to protect all of us, while the richest and most powerful among us are the ones who are trying to drive the society to destruction’ (Cited in Lukacs 2013).
The general lesson is hard to miss. Notice the expression ‘all of us.’ The resistance by the indigenous people to the extraction of hydrocarbons not only saves the environmental niche of these people in New Brunswick and Alberta, it is protecting all of us, the species. In contrast, the rational choices enforced by the ideologies and the institutions controlled by the rich and the powerful are driving the human race towards extinction. It is, thus, an issue about the salient authorship of knowledge.
The issue of knowledge emerged vividly nearer home in the jungles surrounding the Niyamgiri hills in the state of Odisha. These hills contain about 1.8 billion tonnes of high-grade bauxite, the source for aluminium, which a mining giant—euphemistically called Vedanta—wants to extract to feed into giant factories built on this land. As they were pushed out of the plains by the thrust of mainstream civilisation, the local poor, mostly tribals, had lived on this hilly land for thousands of years. After years of resistance by them—and much manipulation and show of muscle by the state, financed by the mining oligarchy—the government was compelled to organise a referendum for 12 carefully-selected villages when the fate of hundreds of villages was involved (Kothari 2015; Vanaja 2014).
As one of many moving studies reports (Bera 2013), using the democratic and peaceful resource of their own panchayats—units of local self-government—village after village gathered en masse amid heavy security cover of central paramilitary and state forces. Ignoring the guns and bayonets, ‘unlettered’ forest dwellers—Dongria Kondh and Kutia Kondh tribals, and Gouda and Harijan non-tribals—spoke of a religion embedded in the hill’s pristine ecology. They told the district judge, appointed observer to the meetings by the apex court, that mining will destroy their god and their source of sustenance:
Over 100 perennial streams, fruit trees such as jackfruit and mangoes, spices like turmeric and ginger, wild roots, tubers and mushroom; apart from the land for shift and burn cultivation—dongar—where they grow an enviable mix of native millets, pulses and oil seeds (Bera 2013).
Having said this, each village unanimously rejected the Vedanta project. Niyamgiri hills survived. For now. Mark the word unlettered, as was used by the reporter. The people themselves ratified this perspective of illiteracy. Tunguru Majhi, a Kutia Kondh tribal, declared at the Kunakadu palli village council meeting,
We will die like Birsa Munda and Rindo Majhi [both Munda and Majhi led tribal uprisings against the British] if you don’t give up now. We are a murkhya jati [illiterate people] who will never listen to you (Bera 2013).
This illiteracy, the absence of letters, the stupidity of the ancient belief in a caring and protecting god of the hills, might just provide the answer to the question of whether the species will survive after all.

Questioning liberal pedagogy

Recall that when he mentioned the resistance by the indigenous people of Canada, Chomsky used the expression ‘so-called “least advanced” people’ (Lukacs 2013). He is not only referring to their action of resistance, but pointing at their intellectual achievement, without which the action of resistance would not have followed. In contrast, the ‘rational decisions’ reached by formidable intellectuals serving the rich and the powerful lead the species to the verge of extinction. The contest is, therefore, between two opposing systems of knowledge in two different intellectual traditions.
Moreover, Chomsky’s contrast between the two traditions implies that, in a crucial historical sense, elite intellectual traditions have failed the species, while the indigenous traditions, in almost total isolation from the elites, opens the opportunity for the continued survival of the species. In the same historical sense then, survival of the species now depends on incorporating marginalised indigenous systems of knowledge into the mainstream. At the same time, there is a need to severely critique and progressively replace entrenched aspects of elite intellectual traditions, which have ruled the world for at least the last few hundred years in the garb of liberal pedagogy.
What does this scenario mean for education policy? What does it mean exactly to prioritise and adopt the knowledge systems of the murkhya to save the species and the planet? In the limited space available to me here, I will focus on the prospect of incorporating indigenous knowledge in the mainstream education policy. In the process, I will be able to touch barely upon the related, but wider issue of dispensing with much of the current liberal curriculum that generates the mindset for plundering the planet.

Ever since liberal education became the agenda at the turn of the last century, education of the poor and the marginalised has concerned a range of progressive thinkers. I will briefly touch upon two of them—Rabindranath Tagore and Paulo Freire—to suggest why these responses to the issue of the survival of the species are inadequate. There are two reasons why I wish to focus on these authors. First, given the historical problems of modernity, there is already growing awareness that Western liberal education has not lived up to its promise of enlightenment, as noted above. In that context, it is of much interest that both Tagore and Freire are non-Western critics of Western elitism and are well-known for their views on education policy. Second, both direct their attention to the education of the marginalised as a form of universal welfare. How do their apparently egalitarian liberal views fare with respect to the issue of indigenous knowledge?

(To be continued)

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part II

[In this section, we explain that the man-made extinction of the species is an outcome of primarily modernist thinking and high-culture which is now shared by the elites globally]
Ideology and hegemony
For his book Hegemony or Survival, Chomsky used the subtitle America’s Quest for Global Dominance, suggesting that the prospect of human survival depends primarily on how humanity responds to the hegemony of the United States (US). No doubt, with its absolute military control over the planet and the space around it, and its nuclear hardware capable of vaporising much of the planetary system, the US has represented the peak of the 'cold and calculated savagery’ with which humans have proceeded to destroy themselves. Moreover, using its military control, the US has thwarted almost every effort to get the planet on some track of recovery. For example, in the last few decades, it has not only ignored the Geneva Convention on warfare and the United Nations (UN) resolutions on terrorism, it has walked out of the Kyoto Protocol on the environment, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, and the convention on biological warfare among others. There is some basis, then, for viewing US hegemony as a principal agent for the imminent extinction of the species.
However, the US has not been alone. The ideology that governs US hegemony over the planet had precedents throughout the history of the Western world. As Chomsky (2005, x) notes, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, rated to be one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century by many scholars, viewed Nazi Germany as the most ‘metaphysical of nations.’ After constructing the spectre of the Jewish–Bolshevik conspiracy to take over the world, eminent Western intellectuals thought that ‘extreme measures’ were necessary for ‘self-defence.’ ‘As the Nazi storm clouds settled over the country in 1935,’ Chomsky continued, ‘Martin Heidegger depicted Germany as the “most endangered” nation in the world, gripped in the “great pincers” of an onslaught against civilisation itself, led in its crudest form by Russia and America’ (Chomsky 2005, x). According to Heidegger, Germany stood ‘in the center of the Western world,’ and must protect the great heritage of classical Greece from ‘annihilation,’ relying on the ‘new spiritual energies unfolding historically from out of the center.’ Hence, the catastrophic war was needed to protect the ‘great heritage of classical Greece’ (Chomsky 2005: x).
When it was attacked by the Japanese in Pearl Harbour, the US unleashed its own ‘legitimate exercise of self-defence against a vicious enemy’ (Chomsky 2005, xi) with a 1,000-plane daylight raid on defenceless Japanese cities, culminating in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Chomsky notes:
The paroxysm of slaughter and annihilation did not end with the use of weapons that may very well bring the species to a bitter end. We should also not forget that these species-terminating weapons were created by the most brilliant, humane, and highly educated figures of modern civilization, working in isolation, and so entranced by the beauty of the work in which they were engaged that they apparently paid little attention to the consequences (2005, x).
As Chomsky has pointed out, the basic problem is much deeper and historical in character than the immediacy of a current rogue state (Gettys 2014). Thus, even if the current neo-liberal phase represents the ‘extreme end of the traditional US policy spectrum,’ these policies have ‘many precursors, both in US history and among earlier aspirants to global power.’ ‘More ominously,’ Chomsky continued, ‘their decisions may not be irrational within the framework of prevailing ideology and the institutions that embody it’ (2003, 4). This is the crucial point—these are rational decisions taken in a civilizational mode, these are products of the most sophisticated thinking pursued for hundreds of years in great centres of learning. In that sense, there is a direct correlation between the culture of enlightenment and the untimely extinction of the species.
Beyond US hegemony, there is now growing concern that humanity might well be led to a species-terminating global war originating in West Asia. After bitter plunder and strategic warfare conducted by the West for over five decades, this region has now spawned powers, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), that not only have the armed resources for acquiring local state power, but have the determination to achieve global dominance just like Nazi Germany. In fact, their ideologies go beyond that of Nazism to actually seek the end of the world. Graeme Wood (2015) reports that
we can gather that [ISIS] rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
It is instructive to note in this connection that the prospect of species termination is not restricted to avowedly hegemonistic violent states and their ideologies. Thus, Chomsky mentions the apparently benign and peace-loving country, Canada, to understand the real scope of the concerned ideology. Speaking on the energy policies of the Canadian government under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Chomsky observed that
It means taking every drop of hydrocarbon out of the ground, whether it’s shale gas in New Brunswick or tar sands in Alberta and trying to destroy the environment as fast as possible, with barely a question raised about what the world will look like as a result (Cited in Lukacs 2013), such destruction of the environment continues across the world, including in India. And, the destruction of the environment puts immense pressure on available resources such that access to the remaining resources enhances the prospect of catastrophic war.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Education for the Species--Part I

An earlier version was published some months ago in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). It is reproduced here in parts because the EPW version is difficult to access due to paywall 

In this possibly-terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured, they may well be essential to survival. 
Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky’s grimly titled book Hegemony or Survival (2003) opens with some observations of contemporary biologist Ernst Mayr, who is sometimes referred to as ‘the biological giant of the 20th century’ (Foreman 2004, 24). After proposing a very reasonable notion of a species (de Queiroz 2005), Mayr (2001) held that about 50 billion species have appeared on this planet since the origin of life. He estimated that ‘the average life expectancy of a species is about 1,00,000 years’ (Chomsky 2003, 1). Exactly one of these 50 billion species ‘achieved the kind of intelligence needed to establish a civilisation,’ Mayr notes (Chomksy 2003, 1). The civilisation-forming intelligence of this species is the topic for this essay.
From studies on sudden expansion of brain size (Striedter 2004), restructuring of the brain for emergence of language (Crow 2010), and proliferation of tools and other signs of culture, it is now estimated that the modern human species emerged roughly about 1,00,000 years ago (Tattersall 2012). Following Mayr’s statistical rule, then, the species is possibly nearing its end.
Sixth ‘intelligent’ extinction
We may hope to defy Mayr’s doomsday scenario under the impression that the human species, apparently, has remarkable control over its destiny, precisely due to the ‘kind of intelligence’ with which it is endowed. Humans may feel reassured that this kind of intelligence will ultimately devise ways, technological and otherwise, to protect the species beyond its statistical limit. Unfortunately, the hope seems to lack foundations. Mayr’s controversial estimate is not the only clue for his doomsday scenario. He proposed another perspective in which the prospect of premature extinction is in fact enhanced by the human kind of intelligence. It is just that the two scenarios seem to converge on the time left for the species.
Biologists suggest that there are two evolutionary scenarios that lead to the extinction of species. The first form of species extinction is called background extinction. This form of extinction happens due to background factors, such as low density of population, limited dispersal ability, inbreeding, successional loss of habitat, climate change, competition, predation, disease, and the like (Soulè 1996). There is considerable dispute about the life of a species undergoing inevitable background extinction. As noted, Mayr thought that species-life is as low as 1,00,000 years. Others calculate it between 1 million and 5–10 million years.
Biologists also list a second form of extinction—mass extinction—in which more than 50% of all species on earth, at a given point in time, are wiped out simultaneously due to some massive catastrophe. Biologists identify five events in the last half a billion years when such grand-scale extinction happened. The last of these—the Cretaceous—occurred when, 65 million years ago, dinosaurs and many molluscs became extinct, most probably due to the strike of a giant asteroid.
In either case, species become extinct due to what may be viewed as natural reasons that are external to the species. These occur in nature periodically due to circumstances beyond the control of the members of the species. In these cases of natural extinction on a geological scale, nothing much can be done in the long run, even if a variety of ‘intelligence’ and other favourable factors postpone the inevitable in the short run. At the current stage of knowledge, there is no definite prediction that the human species is about to become extinct due to the convergence of natural background factors or some catastrophic event, such as the striking of a giant asteroid.
The prediction, rather, is that, after a lapse of 65 million years, the conditions for another—sixth—mass extinction are rapidly maturing. The human species is most likely to disappear due to phenomena such as nuclear holocaust, massive environmental destruction, global conflict, including biological warfare, asstronomical poverty, irreversible damage to food chains, and maybe even just unavailability of potable water. The extinction of the species will most likely be caused by the suicidal behaviour of the species itself. As Chomsky puts it, we are the asteroid.
The author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014), Elizabeth Kolbert suggests in an interview (Drake 2015) that the factor of environmental degradation due to human recklessness alone has enhanced the rate of species extinction by more than 100 times the normal rate in just the last few hundred years. This is because, Kolbert argues,
We loaded the extinction rate with widespread hunting, we brought in invasive species. We are now changing the climate, very, very rapidly, by geological standards. We are changing the chemistry of all the oceans. We are changing the surface of the planet. We cut down forests, we plant mono-culture agriculture, which is not good for a lot of species. We’re overfishing. (Drake 2015).
The list goes on and on. To emphasise, Kolbert’s picture only includes extinction of other species triggering mass extinction. To this picture, we need to add factors like nuclear holocaust, global war, dislocation of food chains, massive famines, depletion of potable water, and the like, which more directly relate to the extinction of the human species itself.
Significantly, each of these doomsday scenarios is critically linked to the species’ unique endowment of the ‘kind of intelligence needed to establish a civilisation’ (Chomsky 2003, 1). No other species remotely has the ability to change the chemistry of the planet, and pollute much of the potable water on earth, by its own diligent effort in just a few hundred years, not to mention the ability to construct weapons of mass destruction, to which we will return.
As Mayr pointed out, there is no evidence that nature prefers intelligence over stupidity: beetles and bacteria, for example, are vastly more successful than the great apes, not to mention humans, in terms of survival. Looking at humans through this long lens of evolution, it could well be, Chomsky holds, that humans were a kind of ‘biological’ error, using their allotted 1,00,000 years to destroy themselves and much else in the process with ‘cold and calculated savagery’ (2003, 2).
The centrality of the notions of intelligence and stupidity brings the topic of the imminent extinction of the species within the broad domain of education. Hence, the title of this essay.

(To be Continued)

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Chant of the Masked People--Part IV

[Continued from Part III. The piece is introduced in Part I. As usual, coloured portions mark text that was edited out by EPW.]

Masked Outsiders

Unfortunately, the Himalayan barrier was seriously breached with the arrest of the JNU students, especially that of the president of the student union who happened to be affiliated with the mainstream left. The situation was grave for the leftist teachers of JNU who were faced with the difficult task of adhering to the party-line on Kashmir while finding convincing arguments to defend their students in the public domain. Since the students were charged with ‘anti-national’ activities around the issue of Kashmir, it was difficult to continue to maintain silence on Kashmir.

The simultaneous arrest of Dr. Geelani on the same charges just escalated the problem for the mainstream left. As noted, Geelani is very much the face of Kashmir; he cannot be defended without sharing his cause. If Geelani’s case was placed in the same political package with the students, the pernicious cause of Kashmir would have infected the task of defending the students as well. As one well-known teacher activist of Delhi told me frankly, “If we now get involved with Geelani’s struggles, we will lose all our other battles.”

The solution to this rather turbulent problem was to, first, delink Geelani from the students by simply sidelining Geelani’s case in an otherwise charged public discourse. Second, a very impressive campaign was launched not to highlight injustice in Kashmir and people’s democratic right to protest about it, but to convert the incidental factors of students and university education as the central issues. The simmering protests on Rohit Vemula’s suicide in the University of Hyderabad were linked up with the arrest of JNU students to reach the wider perspective on university education. Third, once the “left-Ambedkarite” package was carefully formulated as the real issue regarding the arrest of the students, the ‘party-line’ was restored by separating the JNU students from direct ‘anti-national’ engagement with Kashmir.

Opinion about the ‘anti-national’ character of the event of 9 February varied. For the hardliners, the very meeting to commemorate Afzal was ‘anti-national’ and severe judicial punishment was called for. Others, mostly from the mainstream left-liberal forces, agreed that the meeting was wrong and distasteful, but it did not violate any law of the land. However, everybody without exception [emphasis removed by EPW] agreed that the two specific slogans about dismemberment and destruction of India were definitely ‘anti-national’ and some form of punishment was in order. With this universal agreement on the ‘nationalist’ limits of dissent, the core authoritarian project of the regime found full endorsement. In effect, the regime made sure that, outside the valley, people will find it difficult to hold memorial meetings on Afzal in public.

Even the leaders of the otherwise vigorous student movement agreed with the basic dictat of the regime. Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of JNUSU said:

We are appalled at the way the entire incident is being used to malign JNU students. At the outset, we want to condemn the undemocratic slogans that were raised by some people on that day. It is important to note that the slogans were not raised by members of Left organisations or JNU students.

Elsewhere, Kumar stated that what happened on 9 February was most objectionable warranting judicial action (karwai honi chahiye”). JNUSU vice-president Shehla Rashid said,

We condemn the undemocratic slogans that were raised by some people on that day. In fact, when the sloganeering had been taking place, it was the Left-progressive organisations and students, including JNUSU office-bearers, who asked the organisers to stop the slogans, which were regressive.

The JNU community thus cannot be held responsible for the ‘undemocratic slogans’ heard on that day.

At last thus the “Left-progressive” organisations found their fall guy. The universally condemnable slogans were not given by anyone from JNU; they were given by ‘outsiders’. With timely help from the media, some videos of 9 February surfaced, showing several people covering their faces while shouting slogans. The insinuation is difficult to miss: these were the outsiders shouting those condemnable undemocratic slogans. As noted, the matter is under judicial review. Without judging the veracity of the suggestion, I will just hold on to it to proceed with the political argument.

Suppose, as darkly suggested in a number of reports on the incident, that these ‘outsiders’ were students from Kashmir affiliated to various institutions in Delhi. By designating them as ‘outsiders’, the JNU community extricated itself from the problem of identifying with their cause; in effect, the community turned its back on their judicial destiny. The entire weight of an increasingly authoritarian regime is to be borne by a dozen or so young Kashmiris wearing masks and chanting furious slogans, hoping someone will listen. Do we know who they are? Why do they need to put on masks in free, democratic India? What is their compulsion for screaming those disturbing slogans and risking their lives in the process?

It is reasonable to assume that they belong to the current generation of Kashmiris who have spent their entire lives amidst catastrophic violence in which the civilian death-toll is nearing 95,000 in three decades of gut-wrenching conflict. They have heard about, if not actually witnessed, rape and murder of friends and relations on a regular basis as over half a million soldiers of the Indian union, armed with AFSPA, ransack their lives. [EPW placed the part on the army in a separate sentence and dropped the last three words]. They are witness to unmarked mass graves where erstwhile ‘missing persons’ found their place. They are surrounded by thousands of women and children undergoing psychological collapse. They have surely taken part since childhood in endless protests, strikes, shut downs, and processions as another atrocity occurred somewhere in the neighbourhood. Perhaps they know of friends barely out of their teens who compulsively joined the ranks of militancy knowing full well that, by now, the ‘shelf-life’ of a militant is a year at most. Perhaps they have carried the bullet-ridden bodies of their friends while marching in shivering cold with hundreds of others, weeping and screaming at the marauding Indian state. On the other side of the Himalayas.

On 9 February, they assembled again to commemorate the memory of a fellow Kashmiri who “personified the lot of his people.” They congregate because “they suffer at the hands of the very forces and the agencies as he did; until he was put to death.” With the instinctive alertness of a prey, they put on masks as they always do in Kashmir, before they screamed again cursing the state that has ruined their land. On this solemn occasion though they had friends from this side of the Himalayas, a tiny group of brave idealistic students who rallied in solidarity. Hand in hand, they chanted the song of hope and freedom.

The hope was short-lived as the predatory state struck. After the confusion partially cleared, the Kashmiris suddenly realized that no one from democratic India was holding their hands anymore. As if that was not enough, they have now been marked, isolated, and abandoned to the wolves so that the preparations for a Left-Ambedkarite revolution can proceed unhindered in multiple colours.


It is another matter that the vicissitudes of electoral politics in Kashmir has its own compulsions that, for now, might have saved these masked people shouting ‘undemocratic slogans’ from further harm, notwithstanding the patriotic demand for punishment by democratic India.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Chant of the Masked People--Part III

[Continued from Part II]

Kashmir and Afzal Guru

In this context, the deeply problematic Kashmir issue, especially when it is raised in connection with terrorism, offers a unique opportunity to the suggested authoritarian project. In fact, the opportunity is maximized when the situation in ‘terrorist-infested’ Kashmir can be projected as an attack on the sovereignty and the constitutional framework of India. The attack on the Indian parliament and the subsequent conviction of Mohammad Afzal Guru as the sole surviving ‘terrorist’ accomplished that job for the entire ‘nationalist’ right wing sections of the population, especially the Sangh parivar. Therefore, it is no wonder that, on every December 13 (the day the parliament was attacked), the RSS and BJP used to raise the pitch demanding the execution of Afzal Guru. It is ironical though that it is the second UPA government that finally hanged Afzal just months before the general elections of 2014. Such was the importance of Afzal Guru for Indian electoral democracy.

The other, dissident side of the story is that, ever since the trial on the parliament attack case began, democratic opposition to the entire legal process kept growing. By the time Guru was hanged and buried inside the Tihar jail, a considerable dissident literature was widely available. In a powerful review of this literature, along with his own careful reading of the case, the eminent historian and legal expert A. G. Noorani wrote (Why Afzal Guru Matters, Frontline, May 17, 2013),

The execution was perpetrated for blatantly electoral ends. But the ferocity of the reaction in Kashmir shocked its perpetrators in the government and others in New Delhi who had egged it on, within and outside the Congress. It revealed the complete disconnect between the people of Kashmir and their rulers in New Delhi as well as the chasm between the brave human rights activists who pleaded for Afzal Guru’s release and the smug ignorant ones who justified the execution, ironically in the name of the rule of law... The entire case must be read in this context and in the historical context of great miscarriages of justice...

This explains why Afzal Guru’s death aroused the wrath it did. Unlike Maqbool Butt, he was not a symbol. He personified the lot of his people. They suffer at the hands of the very forces and the agencies as he did; until he was put to death. If acquitted, he would have spoken freely. He knew too much. The man had to be killed. It was a frame-up like the famous Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. Only this time, there was no judicial redress.

Afzal’s hanging signalled a disturbing divide in the visible, articulate, non-subaltern public domain. On the one hand, there is the vast ‘nationalist’ crowd for whom Afzal was an enemy of the state and his execution was a patriotic action. On the other, there is the curious mix of a very small group of ‘brave human rights activists’ and the miserable millions in the valley for whom Afzal’s hanging ‘personified the lot of his people’ and signalled the collapse of real democratic order. The small but determined meetings of remembrance that have been taking place every year since 9 February 2013—mostly in Kashmir but elsewhere in the country as well—symbolized this divide.

It is reasonable to assume that the right-wing authoritarian regime currently in power is very aware of this divide. It knows that commemoration of Afzal’s hanging is vastly unpopular with the sections of the population that fill the audience of the mainstream media. So, by taking ‘tough measures’ on these ceremonies, the regime can safely enforce its authority with popular approval while breaking the back of the dissident movement around Kashmir. The project is central to the communal agenda of the Sangh since an attack on the independent identity of Kashmir is ipso facto an attack on Islam in the jaundiced eyes of the parivar. The great opportunity is that, to emphasize, this communal task can be pursued with popular patriotic approval.

In fact, there was a significant precedence to this plan last year, also in JNU. Apparently, a small group of students invited none other than S.A.R Geelani himself to address a commemorative meeting on Afzal on 9 February 2015. To remind, along with Afzal, Geelani and two others were also charged with participation in the attack on the parliament. The notorious POTA court sentenced Geelani, Afzal and one other to death. After spending over a year in the death row, Geelani was finally released after the High Court acquitted him of all charges. Needless to say, Geelani was brutally tortured during the interrogation stage.

Thus, after Afzal’s death, Dr. Geelani has emerged as the ‘bearer’ of the dark image comprising Kashmir, azadi, Islam, terrorism, and the attack on the parliament. That meeting last year was also attacked by a rival student group in JNU. We may presume that proper instructions were conveyed in advance this year for the concerned parties to take appropriate action. The threat of tough measures emanating from the highest authorities signaled the determination of the regime to make full use of the opportunity.

If the commemoration of the death of a ‘terrorist convict’ is an opportunity for the right-wing regime, it is a difficult problem for the mainstream left-liberal opposition. The mainstream left did not cover itself with glory during the entire political process leading to conviction and execution of Afzal Guru and the subsequent ‘ferocity of the reaction in Kashmir.’ To my knowledge, with notable individual exceptions, the mainstream left as a whole never gave any definite support either to the Kashmiri freedom struggle or to protest on the ‘great miscarriage of justice’ regarding Afzal Guru. This is because, within a statist framework, each of these causes tests the idea of democratic dissent at the extremities of the framework. These causes challenge the otherwise progressive left to face two sharp issues:

(a) Do the people of Kashmir have a right to self-determination even if the Indian parliament had unanimously resolved in favour of inclusion of Kashmir within the union of India?
(b) Is it legitimate to protest the judgement of the Supreme Court of India after all legal avenues have been duly exhausted and the President of India had given his seal of approval?

The dilemma is glaring. While affirmative answers to these questions appear to challenge the supremacy of the parliament and the Apex Court, negative answers appear to curtail the fundamental right of democratic dissent. Dilemmas often induce silence. The strategic statist silence worked well as long as Kashmir remained a distant problem on the other side of the Himalayas.

(To be concluded)

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Chant of the Masked People--Part II

[Continued from Part I posted yesterday. Please see the Introduction there. As usual, coloured portions mark where EPW deleted material, not much in this section. It is EPW after all. Very few journals would have published this piece at all in the Indian partisan climate]

Public protest

The sketched perspective on the arrests—with Kashmir at the center—was largely missing from the very impressive public protests that ensued after the arrest of the JNU students. Consider for example, an otherwise fluent and representative recent article in The Hindu on the apparent rise of Ambedkarite politics in some campuses (‘Appropriating Ambedkar’, April 21). This is how the author, who appears to be a witness to the protests, describes the student movement in one rousing sentence:

Anyone who participated in the multiple marches, teach-ins and demonstrations that took place in Hyderabad, Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay and elsewhere throughout January, February and March, following Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the arrest and subsequent release of JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, will recall immediately the visually arresting sight of red and blue flags raised, waved and carried by thousands of citizens, and the soaring chants of a coming Left-Ambedkarite revolution that rang out on the streets, in the squares and on university campuses for the first three months of 2016.

The point to note is that the author mentions the arrest and release of three JNU students in the context of a “coming Left-Ambedkarite revolution” that apparently started with the dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad in January. The remark gives a distinct impression that the JNU students were arrested for their involvement in widespread protests on Vemula’s suicide.

The author is not alone. Many writers and speakers have so depicted these events. For example, Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU student’s union who was arrested along with two others, repeatedly asserted after his release that the JNU students were “targeted” by the government for protesting on Vemula’s suicide and for sustained agitation—the occupy UGC movement—on the withdrawal of non-Net fellowships by the UGC. While making fiery speeches in the parliament, Mr. Sitaram Yechury, on more than one occasion, directly linked the arrest of the students with Vemula’s suicide to illustrate the government’s repressive policies towards the student community.

Neither the Hindu piece under discussion nor Kanhaiya Kumar nor Sitaram Yechury in parliament ever mentioned Geelani’s name while commenting on the arrest of JNU students. It was interesting to observe the leader of a communist party, wedded to the ideas of justice and equality, maintaining a deafening silence on the appalling arrest of a university teacher while loudly protesting the arrest of JNU students for exactly the same ‘crime’.

Geelani’s case was also systematically ignored in the dozens of ‘teach-in’ lectures in the JNU campus that continued for many weeks apparently as a form of protest against the arrests of students. The lectures were organized in the evenings in the open area in front of the JNU administration block. The area was temporarily designated ‘freedom square’. The topics discussed in these lectures included concepts of nationalism, theory of Aryan invasion, Gandhi on Swaraj, Tagore on humanism, Ambedkar’s vision of an inclusive India, lessons from Nehru’s Discovery of India, contribution of Bhagat Singh and others in the Indian freedom movement, history of fascism in Europe, linguistic diversity of India, history of the Hindu right, neoliberal world order, political economy of communalism, feminism and the caste system, and much else. There was much fanfare, radical chants, and clarion call from the freedom square to change the world. It reminded us of the legendary sixties, at Berkeley and San Francisco.

The dark Kashmir issue was mentioned exactly once, and the spirited speaker was hounded for her ‘aberration’ for weeks; the case of Afzal Guru was not mentioned at all to my knowledge. [This crucial line highlighted as a separate para here was merged into the preceding para by EPW]

It is also pertinent to note that the Delhi University Teacher’s Association (DUTA), which is currently dominated by the Congress-Left forces, promptly issued a strong letter of protest after the arrest of the JNU student, Kanhaiya Kumar. S. A. R Geelani, a DUTA member, was arrested four days after Kumar. DUTA maintained a studied silence on the arrest of its own member for nearly a month before it issued a note of protest following persistent petitions from groups of DU teachers. Significantly, the JNU teacher’s association, JNUTA, and JNU student association, JNUSU, issued statement after statement protesting the arrest of JNU students; they never mentioned the arrest of Geelani.

Except for a small group of students in JNU, a handful of democratic rights activists, and some teachers of Delhi University, Geelani’s arrest was essentially ignored. It is difficult to miss the elaborate planning and careful management of the protests to keep the case of Geelani unmentioned and separate from those of JNU students. One report suggested that, despite demands from a small group of students, the executive body of JNUSU deliberately decided not to shout slogans for Geelani. The handful of brave students went on to carry a few posters and shout occasional slogans for Geelani anyway, especially during the third rally. The main ‘soaring’ chants, however, maintained systematic silence on Kashmir, Afzal, and Geelani. Interestingly, much of the mainstream media obeyed the restrictions.

Why did the otherwise strongly motivated left-liberal sections of the intelligentsia in Delhi prefer silence on Kashmir, Afzal Guru, and Geelani? Earlier, we asked why did the regime crack down severely on events commemorating Afzal Guru. We will see that the answer to the two questions is virtually the same, in effect.

Since the present government assumed power nearly two years ago, it has been clear that, armed with a formal majority in Parliament, its aim is an authoritarian government embedded in a strong state. There is no space here to elaborate on the complex, evolving topic. The basic reason is that this regime has been catapulted to power to serve an inherently unpopular economic agenda. To serve the interests of domestic big business, rich Indians abroad, and imperialist powers, the regime will be compelled to further escalate the existing obscene concentration of wealth and the atrocious inequality thereof. In a formal democratic order, this can only be done by dividing and effectively disenfranchising vast sections of people to prevent popular revolt. Hence the need for a strong state under the supreme command of one chosen individual.

The Home Minister of India, Rajnath Singh, and the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, gave rather definitive indication of the intentions of the regime in public remarks around the events of 9th February. In one public address, Singh said,
Anti-national activities and forces won’t be tolerated. Anyone raising anti-India slogan or questioning India’s integrity won’t be spared. Government will take tough measures.

It is well-known that, in the context of a formal democracy, authoritarian regimes initially introduce their project with the widest available public approval. As this government has already seen, overtly divisive communal and fundamentalist actions have a tendency to backfire.

(To be continued)

Friday, 13 January 2017

Chant of the Masked People--Part I

[Last May, after SAR Geelani and the JNU students were released and the first phase of the agitation at JNU was over, I submitted a piece with the above title to Economic and Political Weekly to present my views on the events. EPW promised to publish the piece in June, but delayed publication till end-August. Also the submission was heavily edited. Since the anniversary of those events are approaching, it may be interesting to look at the original piece. The portions edited out by EPW are marked in colour.]

Some significant events took place in recent months in the Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. As the dust on these events is beginning to settle, reflective evaluations have started. According to one historian, these were ‘tumultuous events that have convulsed the subcontinent’ (‘From Institution to Mechanism’, The Hindu, 8 April). According to another, they signaled a ‘coming Left-Ambedkarite revolution’ as ‘soaring chants’ ‘rang out on the streets’ (‘Appropriating Ambedkar’, The Hindu, 21 April).

From a less charitable perspective, we will see that there indeed were chants by both masked and unmasked protestors; as the official unmasked chants ‘soared’, they drowned the masked ones, as if by design. In the process, the ruling reactionary regime got what it wanted.

The Arrests

So what happened? According to reports, on 9th February this year a small demonstration took place inside the JNU campus to commemorate the third death anniversary of Afzal Guru. Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri muslim, was hanged and buried inside the Tihar jail in New Delhi for his alleged involvement in the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament on 13 December, 2001. As the evening shadows lengthened, some young people reportedly made speeches and shouted slogans to protest Guru’s hanging; allegedly, they also engaged in slogans and chants demanding freedom of Kashmir.

Specifically, it was alleged that, within the collection of young persons, some people masked their faces with cloth. It was also alleged that, during the demonstration, some people shouted slogans that wished the dismemberment of India; they also pledged the continuation of the struggle for freedom until the destruction of India. It is important to note that that is all that happened. No arms were displayed and no specific plans for turning these slogans into material action were mooted. At worst, it was a rather strong expression of indignation at perceived massive injustice in Kashmir.

Apparently, a rival student group in the campus protested about what they perceived to be “anti-national” slogans and speeches. As a clash was likely to happen, the Delhi police was informed. Subsequently, after preliminary investigation, three JNU students—Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya—were arrested. The JNU authorities also proceeded to take disciplinary action against 21 students including the ones just named.

Since the matter is under examination by the courts, in what follows I will not be concerned with the veracity of the reported facts, details about who was present during which part of the event, and who shouted which slogan etc. I will also not comment on the latest disciplinary actions enforced by the JNU authorities; this is a matter internal to the administration of JNU. I am concerned with the larger political significance of 9th February.

To proceed, let me note that the police action was located in a politico-historical context that has nothing to do with JNU per se, the community of students as a whole, the university system, the caste system and tragic suicide of Rohit Vemula in Hyderabad, teachings of Babasaheb Ambedkar, etc. In so far as this police action was concerned, it was not directed specifically to crush ‘what JNU stands for’, the ‘alternative kind’ of students, if any, it nurtures, and the idea of ‘liberal education.’ To think otherwise is to unduly glorify the intellect governing the Delhi police system.

The police action was specifically directed at what in fact was the case: public display of support for Kashmir and Afzal Guru. The site of JNU was merely incidental. For example, on the same day, a small demonstration to protest Guru’s hanging was also organized in Jadavpur University in Kolkata, and the police wanted to take action. However, the vice chancellor of the university did not allow the police to enter the campus and a crisis was averted. As protests on Afzal’s hanging refuse to die, it is conceivable that many such meetings took place across the country, especially in Kashmir, often in small public forums outside the university system.

More significantly, a very similar event took place in Delhi itself on the next day, 10th February, at the Press Club of India where people gathered to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru. Here as well there were songs, recitations, speeches, and much chanting and sloganeering for nearly three hours. Incidentally, the speakers seated on the dais were associated, not with JNU, but with Delhi University.

This meeting was formally reported to the Delhi police. The speakers were interrogated at length for days, and Dr. S. A. R. Geelani, a teacher in Delhi University, was arrested for conducting the meeting. More on Geelani later. Importantly, the entire focus of the interrogations was to seek information about connections of people in Delhi, such as Geelani, with the resistance in Kashmir. Since I happened to be one of the speakers, the police showed much initial interest in my work on both the parliament attack case and the maoists in India. Here was the juicy prospect of unearthing the shadowy ‘mass-front’ of a terror network linking maoists and militants in Kashmir with intellectual coordination from universities in Delhi under the very nose of the union home ministry. Unfortunately, the fervent prayers of the police remained unanswered.

Unlike the JNU arrests, Geelani’s arrest was not interpreted as an attack on what University of Delhi stands for and the kind of teachers it nurtures. As we will see, the atrocious arrest of a university teacher on sedition charges—for organizing an open public meeting in a very prominent place with due permission—barely found mention in the months that followed. Even though the JNU and the Press Club events were concerned with identical issues, the former was relentlessly highlighted in the public domain while sustained efforts were made to sideline the latter. We need to understand why.

(To be continued)

Friday, 6 January 2017

Yearning for Consciousness--Part V

Consciousness revisited [Excerpts]

[Recapitulation: Every moderately complex organism endowed with sensory systems will undergo some or other form of experience when affected by stimuli. In that sense, following our own case, we may safely infer that those organisms attain a state of phenomenal consciousness as the ‘feel’ varies from stimulus to stimulus. The fact that animals respond to discriminating stimuli, wriggle in pain, and enjoy tickles, are enough evidence for ascription of phenomenal consciousness. The entire weight is from our own case. What is that case? In the human case, there is the additional feature of what may be called second-order judgement (Chalmers) like ‘I am having red sensation’ or just ‘I am having nice experience.’ These judgements carry concepts of sensation and experience as constituents. What do they indicate? They cannot indicate brain states except in unusual circumstances, they may indicate local ‘feel’ (pain) in case of injury, may be having of colour sensation in the appropriate cases. But is there a feel of tree when there is the visual experience of tree, when we abstract away from information and access? The answer is uncertain, but we cannot fail to have the concept of experience even in those cases. In some cases then, the referent of the term feel is fictional. Why then do we have the concept of phenomenal consciousness in the first place?]


Following the lead from the concept of schizophrenia as our paradigmatic example of a hybrid concept, we might expect then that parts of the concept may in fact yield to science while the more stable and regulatively significant parts refuse to do so. To these latter parts then, the notion of ascription will truly apply. In other words, the point of interest is to see whether the scientifically elusive parts in fact converge on what we take to be the real significance of the concept. To examine the possibility just suggested, let me dwell briefly on the idea that the problem of consciousness is the hardest problem for a science of the mind.

To my knowledge, it used to be said, at the early stages of cognitive science, that while consciousness is the hardest problem, meaning is the second hardest problem (Pylyshyn 1984, Chapter 1). It is interesting to note that not so long ago before that, these two were taken to be, roughly, the same problem. Recall, for example, that Rudolf Carnap (1932) thought of erlebs, or units of experiences in a time-slice, to furnish the basic units of meaning of, say, colour-words; the rest, for Carnap, was set theory. The general idea of experiences supplying the ‘basis’ of meaning continued through the writings of Quine (1960) and Follesdal (1975), among others; for example, Quine’s theory of language was based on the idea of stimulus-meaning […]

The only reason why I made a brief survey of the literature is to highlight the point that the idea that the problem of meaning is the second hardest problem is not immediately obvious. Prima facie, it makes a great deal of sense to say that the meaning of cow is essentially linked to experiences of cows; that’s where meaning must ultimately be coming from. Then why is the problem of meaning taken to be the second hardest problem ranking below the problem of consciousness? The answer, in my opinion, maybe found in thinking of the concept of meaning as a hybrid concept. The notion of meaning that is entertained in the Carnap-Follesdal-Nyaya axis is essentially an ascriptive concept which in turn is linked to the ascriptive notion of phenomenal consciousness. I do not think anything decisive has happened in the meantime for us to locate this concept of meaning within science, notwithstanding tall claims from connectionist circles. If we bravely ignore Davidson’s philosophical objections to the very idea, the problem stays where it is. In a moment we will see why.

Yet true to the hybrid nature of the concept of meaning, some aspects of the original thick concept have indeed been brought under control. As quick examples, one may cite the work of Noam Chomsky and Donald Davidson[…] What is of interest is that neither of these approaches have anything to do with what we might label phenomenal meaning and, despite claims to the contrary, each of these approaches concern fairly remote, technical aspects of meaning far removed from our ordinary ascriptions of the concept of meaning. Our ordinary meaning of cow does concern phenomenal awareness of cows. In that the scenario parallels the history around the concept of schizophrenia. Thus, as far as the notion of phenomenal meaning is concerned, the problem of meaning is exactly as hard as the problem of consciousness[…]

Phenomenal consciousness, along with phenomenal meaning, thus poses an apparently unsolvable problem. In this the problem is not unlike the problem of God. For something to be an account at all, we want the account to be empirically significant; yet, by definition, an account of God cannot be empirically significant since God cannot both be empirically significant, and be the cause for such empirical significance. In other words, we recognize something to be empirically significant because God caused it to be so; that’s the concept of God we want. Our needs then, while raising the expectation for some account, prevent us from doing so. As noted, the concept of God may in fact be given up precisely for the preceding impasse.

Not so with the concept of phenomenal consciousness. Following Strawson, even if we apply P-predicates such as is smiling, is in love, is in pain, is thinking hard, and the like, to entities by first identifying them via M-predicates, we do not apply these P-predicates to all entities we identify via M-predicates; for example, we identify trees and computers with M-predicates. Much of the groundwork for the functioning of language and society requires that we are able to form a conception of persons, and person-like creatures, after having formed a similar conception of ourselves first. The concept of consciousness plays a singular role in anchoring this conception of ourselves. No wonder then that the concept shows up the moment we wish to extend the concept of a person to fetuses, flora and fauna. Almost instinctively, we ask: is it conscious?.

In a quick generalization, therefore, it follows that we need the concept to form some conception of an ethical order consisting of fellow beings just as we need the concept of beauty to form a conception of an aesthetic order. Those needs, it should now be obvious, are essentially normative with no demand for descriptive truth; hence, there is no demand for a theory. Just as we may sometimes dispense with the concept of God, it is quite possible that we ought to be able to dispense with the concept of consciousness as well; every ascriptive concept must provide room for that, provided that we are able to retain the notion of an ethical order otherwise. At the moment we have no idea of how to do so; so we retain the concept of consciousness.