The mind of a man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beam of things should reflect according to their true incidence: nay, it is rather like a enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture. — Francis Beacon
Prof. Andre Beteille — whom I owe a great deal of intellectual debt — wrote once that the aim of intellectual pursuit is to scratch the surface of confusion caused by experience and observation. He wrote this as a social scientist, being fully aware of the fact that curiosity of a social scientist about a society is not the same thing as the curiosity of a mathematician about numbers. Nonetheless, I find this claim to be extremely rich about the general nature of intellectual pursuit.
Is “scratching the surface of confusion caused by experience and observation” is the purpose of a branch of natural science, or, if I may be too bold, of all sciences? This seems to be a good aim but I’d not push it too far for such a claim brings “subjectivity” and “subject” into foreground while claiming very little for the non-subjective part of scholarship, namely methods and routines which each branch of natural sciences has discovered and perfected over time.
It is useful here to draw a thin line between Science and Scholarship . Science is a pursuit of “reality”. It has methods which are to be mastered and perfected in a workshop before one can strike on one’s own. I am not denying the place of intuitions in science, but I believe that there should not be a large scope of individual virtuosity in science as there is in Jazz or classical music. If a branch of natural sciences allows personal virtuosity and intuitions to take over methods and procedures of laboratory and workshop, it only says that such a branch of science has not matured enough. To summarize, mimicking Max Weber, one can claim that while Science is “a slow boring of hard boards,” scholarship is flexible enough to accommodate other intellectual adventures, including the useless and harmless ones.
If we agree on that the purpose of science is to scratch the surface of reality then I have issues with the philosophy of which there seems to be a great variety. Some branches of philosophy have turned into well-established branches of science. It has been said that what was once known as “Natural philosophy” is now called physics. I wish to comment on the “field view” of philosophy which I find around me, rather than its “book view” which is very hard to grasp unless one is initiated on its fertility to produce natural sciences in long run.
First, the scope of methods, facts, and arguments of science must be universal or universal enough. By X being universal I mean that X should not give a different result or lead to different conclusion, if applied correctly, merely because different persons are working with them or they were applied at a different times. Universalism does not seem to be a trait of much of philosophy, specially Indian philosophy. Moreover, it is not always clear if understanding reality is the ultimate aim of philosophy. I am not suggesting that Philosophy, Indian or non-Indian, should adopt a different framework or approach; or metaphysics is not worthy of our attention. But the existing framework tends to undervalue if not ignore the “principle of reality” which is or ought to be held sacred by science.
Second, scientists study or at least suppose to study reality as it exists. A philosopher will not be a philosopher if he does not create alternatives of reality. If philosophy is glamorized as a guiding force for humanity, it has to be said that it can easily turn into an impediment of understanding of reality. May be I am not philosophically musical, but to me, philosophy is confusing at best and misleading at worst. It is in the nature of human mind to mislead others, not always unknowingly. And philosophy offers vast opportunities to mislead others and oneself.
Third, newness in science and scholarship is not created because one has a strong desire to do so, and the life of a great many people will become better by its existence. Philosophy does not seem to have such constraints. One can freely build and refute theories to his liking. Philosophy can be a healthy recluse from the harsh, tiring, boring, and unpredictable world of scientific pursuit. Philosophy offers vast opportunities for that intellectual art of squaring the circle.
As for me, Philosophy seems to offer choices but without telling me the costs of each choice. This is definitely better than having no choice but I’d rather turn to Sociology, Biology or Psychology when I feel confused about my condition.
- Mind over matter, Andre Beteille, The Little Magazine, Middle class, http://www.littlemag.com/midclass/. Available only in print.
- “The problem of universals in Indian philosophy”, Dravida Raja Ram, Motilal Banarisidas. This is one of those rare books that deals with a general problem in philosophy rather than giving a general introduction. For a general introduction to Indian philosophy, See “Indian philosophy Vol 1.”, S. Radhakrishnan. On these lines, also see an informal essay by A. K. Ramanujam, “Is there an Indian way of thinking.”