The third chapter (Theories and Shifting Domains) inquires into the sense in which scientific theories in the formal mode identify a stretch of the world. The contemporary discipline of linguistic theory is an interesting example to study in this context because of its recentness; we are able to study its entire history in a stretch to see whether the reality of human language has come into sharper focus as the theory progressed. After a brief exposition of the basic joints of the theory, it turns out that even within its short history the object of the theory has become increasingly theory-laden for Chomsky (1991) to remark that perhaps there is no such thing as language.
The fourth chapter (The Skeptic and the Cognitivist) adds another dimension to the skepticism just raised. This chapter joins issue with recent claims from the cognitive sciences that the ancient discipline of philosophy is beginning to lose its relevance for understanding human cognition. We focus again on the new discipline of linguistic theory, which is perhaps the most promising program in the cognitive sciences. As the work of philosophers of language mentioned earlier highlighted, the basic classical interest in the study of language has been that humans have the astonishing ability to talk about the world: the semantic ability. As hinted earlier, the theoretical resources of linguistic theory seem to fall far short of the philosophical interest.
Having secured something like a zone of autonomy for the philosophical form of inquiry in the fourth essay, the fifth chapter (From Things to Needs) attempts to develop the idea of autonomy by focusing on the general form of classical Indian philosophy. It may be justly complained that, unlike Western philosophy, this philosophy has lost its relevance because it never interacted with the vast edifice of European science. This conclusion will follow only under the assumption that scientific knowledge over-rules or replaces philosophical inquiry. A quick look at the origin and form of Indian philosophy suggests that its goals might not have been to discover properties of the world at all. A salient goal for philosophical inquiry, distinct from the sciences, could be to formulate conditions of human reflective needs for cognitive agents to lead rational lives. The study of needs seems to be fundamental to philosophical inquiry since its presence can be located even in classical Western philosophy when it is shorn off its ‘scientific’ goals. Interestingly, the study of the mind—the contentious domain under consideration—offers some promising evidence on this issue. In this light, each of the concepts of consciousness, knowledge and belief may be understood very differently from their alleged ‘mentalistic’ features discussed in the received literature.
The next three chapters (Yearning for Consciousness, Ascription of Knowledge, Beliefs and Believers) cover the alternative perspective. The chapters exploit the general distinction between description and ascription. While the goal of descriptions is to examine properties of objects, ascriptions suggest devices of personal evaluation. Each chapter thus consists of two distinct parts. In the first part, we show that the current state of philosophical inquiry on these concepts is at best uncertain; there appear to be fundamental conceptual darkness around them. However, each concept turns out to be salient when we think of them as recommending different evaluative attitudes towards persons and communities to enable us to get a grip on our inter-personal lives.
The idea of placing much of philosophical inquiry into the cultural mode raises the issue of whether the notion of the cultural, as distinct from the scientific, is a coherent unified category. One way of examining the issue is to locate some invariant notion of interpretation governing each of the putative cultural objects. A somewhat detailed ‘anthropological’ study pursued in the ninth chapter (Varieties of Interpretation) across rituals, poetry, painting, and music suggests that even the notion of interpretation radically varies as the objects vary. So, for example, we cannot say without equivocation that cultural objects have a distinctive aspect in that they admit of both singular and plural interpretations.
The perspectives that govern interpretations come in a variety of forms: plurality of traditions, bounds of space and time, eras and epochs, textuality and interpretations, multiplicity of languages, gestalt properties, and simply differences of irreconcilable opinion, often assuming the form of class-war. None of these are seen in science, say, in theoretical physics. No doubt, there are scientific disputes, but that is a different matter altogether. Beyond this general observation of open-ended plurality, human inquiry is too diffused an undertaking to lend itself to definite categories.
Yet, we can locate on examination that there are tangible distinctions between forms of inquiry, even if they blend into one another to mask their identity. For example, we could make some sense of the distinction between the scientific and the philosophical modes as above even if philosophical inquiry sometimes takes a scientific form up to a point. Similarly, there is a perceived sense of affinity between philosophy and literature as an impressive body of ‘converging’ literature testifies. Focusing on the non-converging literature, the tenth chapter (Literature and Common Life) takes up one of the leading issues for this collection of chapters: where does common life get its enrichment from in the general absence of scientific reflection? The answer projected in the chapter appeals to the notion of a text. An author’s view from somewhere enshrined in a text—Platonic or Shakespearean—enables the cognitive agent to expand her horizons and transcend her locality.
The phenomenon of locality and its appeal to textuality is perhaps most directly illustrated in the case of religions. The eleventh chapter (Religion and Mass Culture) raises the problem that, if textuality of religions is understood narrowly in terms of their master-texts, then it will follow that textuality, instead of enhancing the rationality of the cognitive agent, in fact impedes it. And there is no doubt, as documented in the chapter with a particular political scenario in contemporary India, religions can play massively regressive roles. To resolve the dilemma, it is suggested that we need to broaden the notion of textuality to include the complex variety of religious practices that accompany the master-texts; in fact, sometimes there is considerable cognitive separation between the two. So, it is possible for regressive forces to propagate hate by securing allegiance of people in terms of meaningful religious practices.
Given the variety, richness, and autonomy of forms of human inquiry, it is difficult—perhaps even morally questionable—to prioritize a specific form of knowledge. In any case, as we saw, even what is taken to be the pinnacle of human inquiry, namely, formal science, has only limited role in human life. In this essentially pluralistic conception of human knowledge, the final chapter (Education for the Species) raises the issue of the value of this edifice of human knowledge. Sketching the grim scenario for the survival of the human species, it is argued that much of the damage can be traced to the adoption of highly prioritized knowledge-systems ensuing from elite high-cultures. In contrast, the marginalized knowledge-systems of the indigenous people across the world offer a salient perspective for saving the planet. The salience of indigenous knowledge entails a large-scale rejection of elite knowledge-systems. If skepticism is viewed as a state of mind that rejects dominating knowledge-systems, humans need to adopt probably the most extreme form of skepticism, if the species is to survive.