Essays & Opinion


"It is hard to justify a career in the humanities and social sciences in India," writes Jayat Joshi in this explorative essay into the very nature of critical thinking.
When it comes to thinking, “all else is both ephemeral and chaotic”, writes Jayat Joshi.

It is hard to justify a career in the humanities and social sciences in India. Parents expect their kids to accumulate at least some knowledge of the engineering, business and medical professions, which are also the three most sought after subjects. Even if your parents support you, there’ll be someone in your family who isn’t fully convinced. Convincing said family member might require living a whole life and producing it for them as evidence.

People often measure others by the identity of their profession, and to call oneself a “philosopher” or a “political theorist” does not immediately ring the bell in others’ minds. Doctors, we know, will treat diseases. What, exactly, does a “philosopher” or “political theorist” do? Heck, even an “economist” seems somewhat comprehensible. There is a certain faith in the potential modes of being attached to the (in comparison) mainstream professions, as opposed to the humanities. The humanities are humanity’s most traditional professions, however, in an increasingly ‘modern’ world, they lose their connection with the way to live.

Then there is politics in India, as everywhere else; but politics is dirty. This dirt includes treachery, immorality, violence, manipulation, wealth, power; everything that the middle-class individual is afraid of in principle but secretly dying to explore. Is there such a thing as a middle-class individual? Perhaps this is a weak explanatory category in economic terms, but in terms of the body of thoughts and tendencies that populates the mind of many people, it is safe to presume, in my humble opinion, that a sizable majority of Indians are in fact “middle-class”. Even the most unexpected of them, the elite, the ones who have been around the world, the residents of high towers and owners of labradoodles. Hypothetically speaking, if we were to imagine three individuals from three clearly separable classes lower, middle and upper, where the “middle” is the mean relative to which the other two are on the top or bottom, we will see that the lower pulls the middle closer to itself. And this is not just a common sense opinion. But it indeed is the product of a one-dimensional analysis. If the middle-ness of a class of the population were to be gauged in terms of adherence to a set of beliefs and value-systems, the upper would pull the middle towards itself as the class widens to accommodate greater numbers.

Such counterintuitive revelations hide in plain sight, because the structures of societal makeup are designed to accommodate them. These structures are not available to the humanities and the cluster of associated works. The attributes they bestow on their practitioners are considered taboo, not merely counterintuitive results of a changed way of being and doing. This logic, as I earlier pointed out, is a matter of faith. It is a religion of life. Religion is the closest competitor of the arts. It is an influencer, and a patron, and a nemesis, and a rival training camp. Religion is a thousand-armed deity, and its numerous recruits come only as close to the humanities as the wisdom of the spiritual guru their next of kin follow brings them. Most people do not think deeply or read widely. Most people, as they pass through their lives, let their biases ossify as ideology and norm, and hardly ever expose themselves to ideas that threaten the careers of their thinking, if we were to consider thought as a career.

Thinking is a shady business

Thinking is shady business; and one guru or another would prescribe a serene “thoughtlessness” as the path to enlightenment. Such preaching, however, carries the seeds of a dangerous nihilism. When the prescription of the powerful and those who preserve them is lack of thought, the thoughtful angst of the humanities scholar has to find all the nooks and crannies it can to come out of the dark jungle of public discourse and “common sense” and bask in the sunlight. 

Thinking is a difficult business. It needs pedagogy and training to equip oneself in the art of thinking. It is neither only wit, nor just wisdom. Thinking is lesion, a cut, a break, an exercise in nuance and non-conformity. When you arrive at something, hold it, then attack it with all the rigor you can muster, so as to see how much pressure it can withstand. From such a process emerges a valuable result, something which can be kept and passed on. All else is both ephemeral and chaotic. It is not a surprise then, that in the absence of such an emphasis on the importance of deep thinking, the ideas that float around in the public domain are hollow in their philosophical essence. With one lens or another, different versions of the reality can be bent out and extracted, except none of them will fall anywhere close to what could be construed as the absolute, actual whole. The humanities are important for India because only there is the teaching and learning of multiplicity and threatening thought encouraged. Threatening, to the status quo. Without this, the available body of knowledge in circulation in the veins of the country will be reductive, prejudiced, misleading, fallacious, and inaccurate.

Considering the difficulties tied up in critical thought, brings us quickly back to the dirty business. Politics is not an isolated occurrence limited to elections and legislators. Murky thought misguides political action. Political behaviour is first and foremost the casting of doubt at power. If one arrives at a sense of oneself by casting the first stone on one’s own existence, the next stage, where one arrives at a sense of the society, must be reached by casting the second stone at political power, and the institutions that wield it. Through a political act and a political will, one can arrive at a set of fertile commandments to lead life by. However, and this is the nature of the act of thinking with doubt, it renders all absolutism and fundamentalism invalid. It opens the individual, making the self vulnerable in the presence of the other. A caveat begs to be addressed though: the risk with doubt is that it once again draws you towards nihilism. But senselessness can be defeated with the use of political will, in making life-affirming choices.

The essence of the humanities lies in their ability to deal with the very fabric of human life and its makeup.

I must reiterate the point I have been trying to make to tie together the ideas I have spilt here: the essence of the humanities lies in that they deal with the very fabric of human life and its makeup. These things are not investigated in specialized disciplines, unless by individual choice, but they necessarily require urgent dissemination in a country such as India, to salvage popular narratives from truly dangerous ideas by exposing it to the good “dangerous” ideas. The thriving of civic life will rest on such a holistic pedagogy that rests on the foundations of the humanities and social sciences. The nobility of this vision is its courage, its human-centric political organ, and its purpose of serving the humanistic versions of the truth.

Thought, for once, can be given a higher pedestal than action; not only what you think is significant, but also what your society thinks. Between passive thought and action is a spectrum of active choice, and this spectrum is what demands most to be navigated with clarity and sane intent. Perhaps the restoration of the highest power, a God, might do the trick. Perhaps its negation and staunch belief in that negation might do the trick. Whatever may be true, choice must be weighed against something extremely powerful and omnipotent, because of its sheer force in the scheme of progression of life. This is the sum of gumption.

About the author of this post

Jayat Joshi is pursuing a Masters in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. He has previously worked with several organisations in the cultural and educational sectors. A keen student of economic and political thought, he firmly believes in the social responsibility of each individual and is passionate about education accessibility in India. He is also a classical vocalist of the Hindustani tradition. He is currently researching the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human rights in India: In 2019, he was awarded the UN Millennium Fellowship. He is available via LinkedIn.

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