Friday, 23 May 2014

Jean-Jacques Rousseau & his totalitarian musings

(1712  – 1778)
Rousseau was one of the first modern thinkers to attack the institution of private property; many scholars regard him as a the key initiator of socialist ideas. He questioned the assumption that the will of the majority is always correct and argued that the main objective of government should be to secure freedom, equality, and justice for all its citizens, regardless of the will of the majority. He also stated that a legitimate government is one that is the result of contract between men, and hence a government that does not have the agreement of those being ruled has no right to exist. 

Virtually all the information that we have about Rousseau’s youth comes from his posthumously published book, Confessions. He was 13 years old, when he became apprenticed to an engraver and began to learn the trade. Although he did not detest the work, he was beaten up few times by his master, whom he considered to be violent and tyrannical. He was 16 when he left Geneva and reached the province of Savoy. Here he was fortunate enough to meet Louise de Warens, a noblewoman of Protestant background who was separated from her husband and had become a catholic. As professional lay proselytiser, she was paid by the King of Piedmont to help bring Protestants to Catholicism. She became instrumental in Rousseau’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, but the new faith came at the cost of his Geneva citizenship. Many years later, he would return to Geneva and publicly convert back to his original faith, Calvinism.

When Rousseau had arrived at her doorstep he was a stammering young man with hardly any formal education. She provided him with refuge in her home and employed him as her steward. She also furthered his education to such an extent that within few years he be became an accomplished man of letters, musician and a philosopher.


Rousseau was 30 years old when he arrived in Paris with the aim of becoming a musician and composer. After a brief stay, he left for Venice, where he had a honourable but ill-paying post as a secretary in the French Embassy. This period imbued him with love for Italian music, especially the Opera. After his return to Paris in 1745, the penniless Rousseau met the pretty seamstress named Thérèse Le Vasseur, with whom he stayed for the rest of his life, even though they never got married. According to his book, Confessions, Thérèse bore him five children. He is said to have consigned his five offsprings to a foundling institution in Paris. Later on when he would gain fame as a theorist of education, and as a defender of the rights of little children, many critics would use his abandonment of his own children as a pretext for ad hominem attacks.

During this period, Rousseau came in contact with a philosopher called Denis Diderot, who was the editor of a French publication called Encyclopédie. Rousseau started contributing articles to the magazine on music. The Encyclopédie was an important organ of radical and anticlerical opinion, and its contributors were as much reforming and even iconoclastic pamphleteers, as they were philosophers.

In 1749, Denis Diderot was jailed in the fortress of Vincennes for certain views that he had expressed in his Encyclopédie. Rousseau visited him daily. One day, when he was on his way to Vincennes for a meeting with Diderot, he had a flash of insight that modern progress had corrupted men instead of improving them. This thought then became an inspiration for the discourse that he wrote a year later, the A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (Discours sur les sciences et les arts), in which he argued that the history of man on earth was a history of decay. This discourse was written in response to the Academy of Dijon’s essay contest and as it won the prize, it was widely read and there was a certain amount of controversy. All of a sudden Rousseau found himself becoming famous. To many readers, this discourse made Rousseau seem like an enemy of progress. However, he was not the only one to have espoused such views. Many Catholic writers of that era had also expressed their apprehension about the direction in which the Enlightenment project had pushed European culture. The crucial difference between these writers and Rousseau was that he of of the view that man was by nature was a noble being, he had been corrupted by civilisation.

In the year 1750, the conception of the noble - or innocent - savage had taken hold of Rousseau’s mind and he would develop the concept further in his subsequent works. He also started feeling that he should return to Geneva. Finally he repudiate his Catholicism, and took readmission to the Protestant church. He took his mistress Thérèse Levasseur along and tried to present her as a nurse. Her presence caused murmurings in the conservative Geneva society, but Rousseau’s literary fame insured that he was easily readmitted into the Calvinist communion. By the autumn of 1753, Rousseau completed a second discourse for submission in the contest announced by the Academy of Dijon. This time, the question posed was, “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorised by the natural law?” Titled Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité), this second discourse was significantly longer. This time Rousseau did not win the Academy’s award, but this work widely read and discussed.

In the second discourse Rousseau makes the declaration that society was an invention; he has attempted to explain the nature of human beings by stripping them of all of the accidental qualities brought about by socialisation. The discourse begins with the argument that there exist two types of inequalities, natural and artificial. The first arose from differences in natural attributes, such as strength, intelligence, and so forth, while the second type of inequality was the result of conventions that govern societies. He goes on to say that the earliest man was not a social being; he was entirely solitary. But this state of solitariness led to his being happy, virtuous and free. All the vices that men are plagued with, Rousseau argues, date from the time when the natural state of life ended, and societies came into being. Even though he seems to be exonerating human nature, and laying the blame squarely on societies for corrupting men, Rousseau is not simply saying that humans living in natural state are good and humans in civil society are bad. He is only making the point that human beings in the state of nature are amoral creatures, neither virtuous nor vicious, and once societies get formed, passions that generate vices begin to develop.

He holds the concept of property as being responsible for the regime of inequality that exists in modern societies. He argues that the departure from the ideal condition where the earth belonged to no one had made it necessary for men to come up with institutions of law and government, which are dedicated to protecting property. Marx and Lenin have used such passages from the second discourse in making a case for communist society. Rousseau was of the opinion that the past could not be undone, and there was no point in dreaming about a return to the golden age, when man lived like a noble savage. A year after the publication of the Second Discourse, Rousseau and Thérèse Levasseur, with the intention of pursuing a life closer to nature, became guests at the country estate of Mme. D’Epinay, who was well known in France’s literary circles. During his year long stay here, Rousseau became involved in an affair with a 25-year-old woman named Sophie d’Houdetot, who was a cousin of Mme. D’Epinay. After repeated quarrels with Mme. D’Epinay and her other guests including Denis Diderot, Rousseau shifted to a new lodgings situated close to the country home of the Duke of Luxemburg at Montmorency.

During this period when Rousseau published many books and papers. In 1761, his novel Julie: or, The New Eloise (Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse) was published to immense success. The book was inspired by the author’s relationship with Sophie d’Houdetot. Its central character, Saint-Preux, is a middle-class preceptor who falls in love with his upper-class pupil, Julie. In 1762, Rousseau published A Social Contract (Du Contrat social), in which he has attempted to chart out the path through which men might recover their freedom in future. A Social Contract begins with the sensational opening sentence, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” From this point, the book proceeds to argue that men need not be in chains. The text is quite systematic, as it outlines how a government can exist in such a way that it protects the equality and character of its citizens. He argues that liberty can only be fostered through a system of obedience to a self-imposed law. However, such a definition of political liberty gives rise to an obvious problem. It can be argued that an individual is free if he obeys only the laws that he prescribes to himself, but this is only because an individual has only one will. In contrast, a society can be seen as being the amalgamation of many different wills.

Rousseau tried to solve this problem by attempting to define society, as an artificial person united by a general will. But such a concept becomes the breeding ground for a new tension between liberalism and communitarianism. Rousseau has attempted to present the case that the concept of “general will” fosters individual diversity and freedom, but it is obvious that “general will” is also symptomatic of a state, whose main mission is to encourage the well-being of the whole, and this can put it in conflict with the particular interests of individuals. Such contradictions in his reasoning have led many to believe that Rousseau’s philosophy is inconsistent. In one haunting paragraph, he talks about “forcing men to be free.” The line seems absurd if you believe that wherever there is coercion or force, freedom cannot exist. Many critics have used these lines as a basis of the claim that Rousseau was a prophet of modern totalitarianism.

His work detailing his philosophy of education entitled, On Education (Emile) was published during the same period. The unique thing about Emile was that it was written as a part novel and part philosophical treatise.


The authorities condemned both the books, A Social Contract and Emile, primarily because of the views that Rousseau had expressed on the subject of religion. In Paris, as well as in Geneva, they ordered the books to be burned and the author arrested. With the help of some friends, Rousseau managed to escape. He formally renounced his Genevan citizenship in 1763, and became a fugitive, spending the rest of his life moving from one refuge to another. Eventually he moved to England at the invitation of David Hume. However, soon he had a quarrel with Hume, and after a stay of only one year in the English soil, he secretly made his way back to France. By now various symptoms of paranoia had started manifesting in him, and he was filled with the belief that his mistress for many years, Thérèse was the only person he could rely on; he finally married her in 1768, when he was 56 years old.

Monday, 19 May 2014

David Hume & his inquiries

At the very onset of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume maintains that we “must cultivate true metaphysics with some care, in order to destroy the false and adulterate.” What he had in his mind was seminal changes in philosophy. He defines “moral philosophy” as “the science of human nature.” He also makes an attempt to define the limits of human knowledge. He poses questions on the aspects of fact and experience, before answering them by taking recourse to the principle of association, and reaching the conclusion that mind does not create any ideas, but derives them from impression. From this basis, Hume develops his theory of meaning. Any word that does not stand directly for an impression, can derive its meaning only if it conjures in the mind the image of an object, which can be gathered through the medium of the senses. 

On the aspect of meaning, he proposes two approaches, an analytical one, which is based on the “relations of ideas,” and an empirical one, with focus on “matters of fact.” Ideas can be held simply as meanings, and their logical relationship with one another can be detected through the use of reason. However, matters of fact, appear in the mind as simple facts and they don’t reveal any logical relations; their properties and connections are pre-determined. For instance, rose is red and snow is cold are a set of facts, which are undeniable and hence they are logically barren. From this basis Hume develops his doctrine of causality. He argues that causation is not only the strongest associative relation; it is also the most important, since “by means of that relation alone we can go beyond the evidence of our memory and senses.” It is not reason, but experience that leads us to discover causes and effects. Such discoveries happen when we find that particular objects are constantly conjoined with one another.

While considering the process of causal inference, Hume introduces his concept of belief. He considers belief to be a significant component in the process of causal inference. For instance, when a person sees a glass fall, he expects it to shatter, once it hits the ground. He characterizes belief as a sort of dynamism or vibrancy that goes with the perception of an idea. In other words, belief is more than an idea; it is a dynamic and vibrant idea. Hume’s thinking on the subject of morality gets a thorough exposition in his second Enquiry, which is An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. He views sympathy as an important facet of human nature; it is something that forms the basis of every aspect of social life and personal happiness. Diverging widely from the views of moral rationalists, who hold that moral judgements are based on reason, Hume argued that reason is only capable of judging either matters of fact or of relations. Morality, he maintains, can never consist of any single matter of fact to be immediately perceived, intuited, or grasped by reason alone.

For Hume moral judgements are grounded in moral sentiments. His emphasis is on altruism, in the sense that his moral system focuses on the happiness of others and also on the happiness of the self. He argues that it is human nature to laugh with the laughing and to grieve with the grieved and to seek the good of others as well as one’s own. Hume also had a great impact on our understanding of religions. He strongly refuted the idea of miracles and accused Christianity, the dominant religion of Europe, of pandering to the superstitions of people. He has made a philosophical attempt to refute the design argument, which is one of the most popular arguments for existence of God. In his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion and also in his first Enquiry, he argued that for the design argument to be feasible, it must be observable in nature that order and purpose are the result only when there is some kind of design involved. But that is not the case, as nature offers us countless examples where seemingly random events lead to perfectly ordered results. Case in point is the generation of snowflakes and crystals.

Hume conceived of philosophy as the inductive science of human nature, and he concluded that man is more a creature of sensitive and practical sentiment than of reason. By his act of envisaging an element of doubt on the assumption of a necessary link between cause and effect, Hume became one of the first philosophers in the post-medieval era to bring new perspectives on the scepticism of the ancient philosophers. In economics, he developed several new ideas around which the “classical economics” of the 18th century was built. He argued that wealth consists of commodities and not of money, and that the amount of money in circulation should be correlated to the value of the commodities in the market.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Bertrand Russell & his Mystical Mathematics

Bertrand Russell (1872 –1970) is thought to have played a role in the development of logicism, which states that even though mathematics has logically sound foundations, in its entirety it is nothing but logic. This point of view got stated at length in his book, Principles of Mathematics, which was published in 1903. This book proposed that the foundations of mathematics could be derived from a few simple axioms that made no use of specifically mathematical concepts, such as number and square root, but were confined to purely logical notions, such as proposition and class. Through the use of this method Russell could show mathematics to be immune from doubt, as well as from the notion of subjectivity. However, as he continued to ponder on this issue, it became apparent to him that there existed a major contradiction in his line of thinking. This contradiction subsequently became known as Russell’s Paradox.

In the beginning the paradox seemed trivial, but as Russell reflected upon it, he realized that the foundation on which he had been hoping to build his mathematics was on verge of collapse. He had no alternative except to set himself on creating a new theory of logic that could be immune to the paradox. After numerous attempts he came up with a complex theory known as Theory of Types, in which he managed to avoid the contradictions of the paradox. Between 1910 and 1913, he published three volumes of Principia Mathematicia in collaboration with the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. These three volumes are regarded as a significant attempt to demonstrate mathematically what Principles of Mathematics had tried to demonstrate in a rather philosophical manner, namely that mathematics is a branch of logic. However, the philosophical and mathematical significance of Principia Mathematicia continues to be a matter of debate. In the later years of his life, Russell scornfully said that his project of deriving mathematics from logic had been akin to a “kind of mathematical mysticism.”

Just as he used logic to shred apart different mathematical concepts, he also used his brand of logic to take a look at different philosophical issues. Regarded as one of the founders of analytical philosophy, he made significant contributions to a wide variety of areas, including metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and political theory. The Problems of Philosophy, which he wrote in 1912, continues to be popular till this day. Written in a lucid language, this small book is capable of serving as a guide to most abstruse ideas of philosophy. The realisation dawned on Russell that he had a gift for writing on difficult subjects for lay readers, and in his subsequent books, he started targeting them, rather than the small group of readers who were capable of understanding his rather obscure ideas on mathematical theory. In books like, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (1918) and The Analysis of Mind (1921), he tried to tackle issues related to epistemology. Russell considered capitalism as evil and doomed, but after a visit to Soviet Union with a Labour Party delegation, he was disillusioned. He realized that Bolshevism was even worse, and he expressed his disgust in the book, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, published in 1920.

Russell was of the opinion that his life was dedicated to reason, and it was his purpose to be concerned with the basic questions about man’s place in the universe, so he took a position against organized religion. Publication of Marriage and Morals in 1929 saw Russell coming under attack from conservatives in his society. It was a certainly a provocative book if one goes by the cultural system of that era. Russell used a range of arguments to prove that the contemporary laws and ideas about sex were an extraordinary potpourri collected from savages, ascetics, Roman lawyers, and other ancient traditionalists. He examined the link between sex as taboo and the advent of religious ethics in great detail. A decade after its publication, the book cost him his professorial appointment at the City College of New York due to a court judgment that a man of his opinions was unfit to teach. The Conquest of Happiness (1930), his recipe for good living, promoted the view that true happiness could only be achieved through personal effort and thought.

Despite being a prolific writer, he was on the brink of financial ruin, when he secured a job teaching the history of philosophy at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. This appointment gave him the opportunity to write one of his most popular books, A History of Western Philosophy, which came out in 1945. For many years this book remained main source of his income. The book is divided into three parts, each of which is subdivided into many chapters dealing with a single philosopher, school of philosophy, or period of time. In 1944, once again Russell returned to Trinity College, where he lectured on the ideas that were collectively presented in his last major contribution to the subject of philosophy - Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, published in 1948. During the 1950s, he forsook both philosophy and mathematics and delved into writing short stories, but his style of writing was not suitable for fiction. 

Today Russell’s works have lost their relevance and he is far better known as an anti-war protestor than he is as a philosopher or a mathematician.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Review of “An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions”

For more than six decades, India has been having almost free elections, rule of law, and a string of governments that claim to be being in politics to help the poor, yet the country continues to be home to hopeless amount of poverty. Some of the worse failures that the country has had are in the area of health and education. If we are to believe that democracy works, then why are majority of Indians forced to lead such wretched lives. Despite being touted as an IT superpower, almost 400 million Indians do not have access to electricity or clean drinking water.

The book written by India’s two elite intellectuals, who are very close to the socialist political class, argues that India has not done enough for its poor. This is obvious. But the plan of action that they suggest for helping the poor consists of the same of strategy of major government intervention into the economy that have led to such unimaginable poverty in the country. The basic philosophy being propagated by the book is that economic growth is meaningless without redistribution of its benefits to the underprivileged. And this means that more of tax payers money should be poured into education, healthcare and employment.

The book’s authors blame the self-centred middle class for living in the delusion that massive government spending will impede growth. But where is the question of delusion in this point of view? The two economists only need to look back by few decades at the pre-reform years, when the growth rate was less than 3.5 percent and there used to abysmal amount of poverty. The latest report from the UN on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) shows that between 1990 and 2010, the reduction in worldwide poverty has been the result of economic growth. 

The main argument presented in the book is that unless there is an immediate attack on illiteracy and ill health the nation will not be able to achieve prosperity. Such an approach, the authors say, will produce a healthier and more literate workforce and lead to higher economic growth. Higher growth, in turn, will bring larger revenues for the state, allowing further attacks on illiteracy and ill health. But instead of using the reformist model, which has high level of participation of the private sector, for developing healthcare and education in the country, the authors advocate that a series of state driven initiatives must be taken.

They recognise that the reforms of 1990 have led to rapid growth in the economy, yet Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen want the country to adopt bureaucratic and state driven model, which is reminiscent of the low growth pre-1990s India, to bring about improvements in the healthcare and education sectors. Drèze, incidentally, was a member of Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council. It is well known that the theories propagated by Drèze and Amartya Sen have played a major role in making the UPA government conclude that India's free-market reforms were not helping the poor. This led to the government focussing on polices that would purportedly ensure equality in society and sidelining the reformist measures that would have led to rapid growth of the economy.

The entire focus of governance changed to ensuring that there was massive government spending on welfare. Instead of building roads, for example, it preferred to give away cheap food and energy and waive loans to farmers. Its flagship program was a guarantee of 100 days employment to everyone in rural areas. Approvals to industry for new projects came to a virtual halt, mostly on environmental grounds. This led to investors loosing confidence, and inflation shooting up. India’s economic growth plummeted to below 4.5 percent and there were job losses in many areas of economy. As a result the majority of the people lost faith in government.

Under the advise of the books authors the government also came up with the Food Security Bill, a mammoth government scheme under which food grains have to be distributed to more than two-thirds of the nation at a fraction of the market rates. There is no sense behind this policy as past experience shows that less than half the food from such programs reaches the intended beneficiaries; the rest is lost in inefficiency and corruption. It did not even matter to the government and to its leftist advisors that the government did not have the money to procure the grains at such massive levels. More importantly, the government did not have a system by which the grains could be distributed to tens of crores of people.

Shedding tears in name of the poor and the downtrodden is one thing; coming up with actual ideas that can lead to betterment in the economic conditions of all sections of society is something entirely different. The two authors, one of whom happens to be a Nobel Laureate, fail to explain why they want the country to go back to a system that led to massive poverty during the period between 1950 and 1990, when the first round of reforms took off. Since 1990, there has been exemplary improvement in the health indicators and life expectancy has almost doubled to 66.

The Indian news media, especially the mainstream English language media, whose consumers are mainly the middle class, is also being taken to task by the two authors. The authors believe that the English language media is not as interested in highlighting the social issues as it ought to be. But that does not seem to be correct. There are lot of news reports on the abysmal poverty and corruption that the country faces. In fact, the authors have themselves quoted a wide array of journalistic opinions, ranging from Harsh Mander and Shobha De. 

Many famous economists have been against what has also been described by Sen’s detractors as ‘voodoo economics.’ Perhaps the ‘contradiction’ that the book’s authors talk about is not in the country, rather it is in the mind of its socialist intellectuals, who fail to see the devastating impact that their theories are having on the lives on the common citizens. It is true that Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen recognise India’s problems, but they fail to provide convincing solutions to these problems. It is difficult to understand why these two thinkers insist that only the state should deliver grains and provide healthcare and education to the masses. Such state level initiatives have been failing the nation since independence.

Title: An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions
Author: Jean Dreze, Amartya Sen
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price: Rs 699
Pages: 448

Why I have started this new blog - The Failed Intellectual?

If almost 70 years after independence India continues to be one of the world’s poorest countries, where even the basic infrastructure and conveniences are unavailable to its citizens, then we have the right to ask, who is responsible for this backwardness? The political class is certainly to be blamed, but the major chunk of the responsibility for the mess that the country is in today must lie with the (so-called) left leaning intellectuals. These intellectuals have successfully created an atmosphere of intellectual bankruptcy in the country. They have ensured that the Indians do not have access to the “rational” political or economic ideas and are in no position to demand a change in the way the country is being run.

Primarily because the education in the country is almost a monopoly of the socialist government, India has not been able to develop a free and vibrant intellectual culture. The intellectual space in the country is almost totally monopolised by the leftists.

The leftist intellectuals believe that they are smarter than others and therefore more likely to come up with the right ideas. They think that they have the birthright to dictate the economic and social policies of the country, but the truth is that they are lot less rational than the average man on the street. The politics of empowerment, through excessive regulation of the economy and expansion of the welfare state, has been refuted all over the world as has the flat earth theory, yet these intellectuals continue to to insist that socialism is the right path for India. Under their advise various socialist governments have developed bloated bureaucracies for controlling commercial activity, opposing capitalism, expanding the welfare state, and regulating the lives of everyone.

During the last 70 years, the socialist rulers of the country and the intellectuals have been exhibiting a (obscenely) cosy symbiotic relationship. The political class needs the intellectuals, as without the ideological support of the intellectuals, they will not be able to justify their existence in power. It is the intellectuals who offer moral justification for the socialist politicians to continue to be in power even when the country is rocked by the worst economic problems and corruption scandals. Clearly, the leftist intellectuals keep supporting the socialist politicians, because without the political support, they won’t be able to get implemented the false economic and social policies that will keep the country poor and unhappy.

It is the leftist intellectuals who are more responsible than the socialist politicians for the mess that the country finds itself in today. The socialist politicians who have been misruling the country for much of the time since independence would have been voted out in the elections decades ago if the citizens of this country had been exposed to the right ideologies and political systems.

The purpose of this blog “The Failed Intellectual” is to discuss the work and ideas of the intellectuals to show that it is not necessary that these intellectuals of the left have some kind of “higher brainpower” or “better ability to arrive at the truth.” This blog will also aim to expose the symbiotic relationship that exists between the socialist rulers and the intellectuals. If these so-called intellectuals keep coming up with the moral and ideological reasons for defending the socialist government despite the fact that the country is being wrecked by corruption, lack of development and violence in the name of religion, caste, etc., then they must be considered equally responsible everything that has gone wrong in India.

THE FAILED INTELLECTUAL will discuss why India has proved so susceptible to some of the most irrational views out there in the area of economics, politics & culture. Why have we so easily allowed ourselves to become the happy hunting ground for the international club of elite leftist/liberal intellectuals? Why?