Sunday, 16 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry_I

Human beings are endowed with cognitive agency. Our grasp of the world, and of ourselves, is not merely a reflexive response to external stimuli, it is a reflective product of human inquiry, often structured in imagination. What are the forms of inquiry available to humans to lead a significant life? How are these forms related to each other? The twelve exploratory chapters of varying length collected in this volume examine forms and limits of human inquiry from a variety of directions.

Most of these directions emanate from classical philosophical investigations on human knowledge. Since the nature of human inquiry is the general theme, it is not surprising that the chapters cover a wide range of familiar philosophical topics: the nature of reality, scientific realism; concepts of truth, knowledge, belief, consciousness; character of mind, language, grammar, meaning; literature and philosophy; nature of music, religious discourse; knowledge and human destiny, and others. Although I have called them ‘Chapters’, it is not unreasonable to view the volume as a collection of essays. 

These pieces were written in a discontinuous fashion over a number of years for very different occasions and audiences, and at varying, often conflicting, reflective moments. Strictly speaking, their spatial assembly here does not really amount to a sustained fully articulated monograph; significant silences insulate the individual write-ups from each other. Given the range and complexity of the listed topics, I do not think there could be a single substantive monograph that covers them all. In any case, I am not concerned here either with history of philosophy or with philosophical anthropology, even though I end up doing these things on occasion to set the scene. My intention is not to report on the current state of these topics. They are discussed because they necessarily infiltrate the mind when you think about the idea of being human.

Yet, this is not just a compilation of assorted papers to mark the end of a career. If a metaphor is needed to cover the collation, one could say, in celebrated terms, that they form a ‘family’ as their resemblances ‘criss-cross and overlap’. I think it is better to view the pieces as forming a group of proximate islands in the same stretch of the sea; the image of an island seems appropriate because each chapter stands on its own without directly depending on the others. However, I have used the method of cross-reference frequently to aid the memory, sharpen a point, or to construct a bridge. I will try to describe the composite picture shortly.

Individually too, the pieces are more like free-flowing essays than formally structured papers meant for disciplinary journals. I am aware that centuries of the most extensive reflection and scholarship across many fields of inquiry have nourished each of the topics listed above. Especially in the last century almost all of these topics have attained formidable technical character. Apart from developing theoretical vocabulary of their own, philosophers have explored these issues with insights from mathematical logic, theoretical linguistics, computer science, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and theoretical physics. As a result, it is now expected that these otherwise large and elusive issues are discussed in terms of the latest technical proposal; fair enough, that is how academic papers are written.

The pieces assembled here generally do not follow that trajectory. Although they do cover familiar philosophical topics like knowledge, truth, realism, belief, meaning, interpretation, and the like, that are often discussed in professional platforms, these topics carry much value beyond the closely guarded canons of the academia. After all, as the legend goes, many of these topics started their career on ancient streets or under banyan trees; arguably, unlike other branches of inquiry, they retain the memory of those plebeian assemblies. These chapters attempt to convey a sense of relaxed conversation in a disarming voice to reach audiences outside professional meetings of philosophers. As a result they sometimes ignore, even disobey, the formal tone and attire of academic discourse.

However, these are not ‘popular’ pieces by any means. After a life in professional philosophy, often guided by inputs from the adjacent sciences, it is by now intellectually impossible to entirely avoid the formal tone and at least some of the demanding literature that informs it. In that slightly uncertain sense, these are reflective efforts that are seeking a zone of comfort somewhere between technical journals and literary supplements, but never aiming for a talk-show. As a result, in many cases, they start out with the usual preparations of the professional philosopher, but they seldom stay on course to the end; in a variety of ways, the discussion moves away from familiar abstract channels to more direct arenas of common life. It is not for me to judge whether the effort had been successful, but I hope they do convey some sense of honesty of purpose because, in most cases, the discourse was not deliberately designed.

(To be continued)

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