The Faithful Hound

Friday, November 17, 2006

The domain of unfinished accounts

I sometimes find myself torn between two streams of thought. First is the desire to approach every question or problem in my life with a purely rational thought process and second is the knowledge that the bounds of human experience are infinitesimally small relative to our universe, thereby trivializing the scope of rationality.
I was discussing this with my father and he told me of someone else who was able to balance the two while leading a productive and fulfilling life.
This is an excerpt from Amartya Sen's introduction to Rabindranath Tagore's 'Boyhood Days', translated by Radha Chakravarty (Puffin Classics, 2006)

"Tagore's commitment to reasoning was strong - sometimes fierce - throughout his life. This is well reflected in his arguments, for example, with Mahatma Gandhi (whom he chastised for obscurantism), with religious parochialists (whose reasonless sectarianism upset him greatly), with the British establishment (for their crude treatment of India, in contrast with what he admired greatly in British intellectual life and creativity), with his Japanese admirers (who received, despite Tagore's general admiration of Japan, his sharply angry critique for their silence - or worse - in the face of Japan's newly-emerging supernationalism, including the Japanese treatment of China), and with the administrative leadership of both British India and the Soviet Union (he compared the Soviet achievements in school education across its Asian and European span very favourably with the gross neglect of school education in British India, while also chastising the Soviet leadership for its intolerance of criticism and of freedom of expression).
Tagore's commitment to a reasoned understanding of the world around us came through also in his wholehearted support for scientific education (his school insisted on every child's exposure to the new findings emerging anywhere in the world). The same commitment to reason is seen also in Tagore's cultural evaluations, including his firm mixture of pride in Indian culture and rejection of any claim to the priority of Indian culture over all others. It is also seen in his refusal to see something called "the Indian civilization" in isolation from influences coming from the rest of the world: this remains very relevant today, not just as a critique of what is now called the "Hindutva" approach, but also of the widely popular theses of the "clash of civilizations," which is frequently invoked these days as a gross - and rather dangerous - simplification of the complex world in which we live. In every case, Rabindranath's firm convictions were driven explicitly by critical reasoning which he clearly spelt out.
And yet to many contemporary observers in Europe and America, Rabindranath appeared to be anything but a follower of reason. It was faith he was identified with, and with a penchant for mystification over seeking clarity. While some of Tagore's admirers (of suitably mystical kind themselves) loved this "re-done Tagore," others found it unattractive, even detestable. A clear formulation of that interpretation of Tagore can be found in two unpublished letters of Bertrand Russell to Nimai Chatterji. On 16th February 1963, Earl Russell wrote to Nimai Chatterji: "I recall the meeting [with Tagore] of which Lowes Dickinson writes only vaguely. There was an earlier occasion, the first upon which I met Tagore, when he was brought to my home by Robert Trevelyan and Lowes Dickinson. I confess that his mystic air did not attract me and I recollect wishing he would be more direct. He had a soft, rather elusive, manner which led one to feel that straightforward exchange or communication from which he would shy away. His intensity was impaired by his self-asorbtion [absorption]. Naturally, his mystic views were by way of dicta and it was not possible to reason about them."
In a later letter, dated 26th April 1967, Russell was even sharper in his denunciation of what he took to be Tagore's flight from reason: "His talk about the infinite is vague nonsense. The sort of language that is admired by many Indians unfortunately does not mean anything at all."
Rabindranath's understanding of intellectual priorities did, in fact, have some special features which contributed to the misunderstanding that is being examined. One of them was Tagore's willingness to accept that many questions will remain unresolved and their answers can remain uncompleted. The domain of unfinished accounts would change over time, but not go away, and in this Rabindranath saw not a defeat but a humble - and also beautiful - recognition of our limited understanding of a vast world, even an incomprehensibly large, possibly infinite, universe (the kind of remark that so exasperated Russell). Rather than seeing this as a defeat of reason he clearly saw this as the way reason works in human life, at any point of time. He also saw some aesthetic beauty in the continuing incompleteness of our answers: this is where, I presume, Russell would have walked away had Tagore not been sitting at Russell's own home."

The full text of the introduction can be found here. TR and WS, you will find an interesting criticism of translations further along in the text.


  • At 12:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    To your introduction, I like to think that there is no dialectic really, because, seen from a certain perspective, everything is faith (most of our reason is axiomatic in nature), while seen from another perspective, everything is reason (faith is merely an intuition waiting for proof).

  • At 1:10 PM, Blogger Revealed said…

    I think I'd have liked him. But WS, I don't think that everything is faith or everything is reason from any perspective. A lot of people have faith in what they reason to be true and a lot of people make what they believe in reasonable but they are two different things though I wouldn't go so far as to claim never the twain shall meet :).

    Liked the bit about him accepting the existence of the unknown. A man after my own heart :P

  • At 10:22 AM, Blogger MockTurtle said…

    @WS: Well put. I agree that faith and rationality can coexist and are interdependent to a degree. My own dilemna has revolved around the need to apply rationality to a system whose variables are too complex to calculate.

    @revealed: Acknowledging the vast unknown is humility that we can all afford. It's too convenient to call the whole thing by a single religious name (yes I mean the G word) and assume that it's all for the best.

  • At 4:57 PM, Blogger Revealed said…

    @MT: Yeah, but so weird. How does it seem more reasonable to acknowledge the presence of some supernatural super power rather than just admit that the universe has some secrets that are yet to be unraveled and for all we know, never will be. And as for assuming all is for the best, we Indians are World Champions in that, and in the face of all odds, at that. Its just impressive.

  • At 11:21 PM, Blogger Tabula Rasa said…

    thanks for the excerpt and the link -- look fwd to looking into them (much as with your previous insights into mysticism :-)

  • At 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Nice. Have you read the Argumentative Indian? It has a nice essay on Tagore as well. As for Russel, well as much as I like him....he was probably the biggest egomaniac on earth. I think he had very little patience with people he didn't agree with.

  • At 12:56 PM, Blogger MockTurtle said…

    @revealed: I agree with all your points.
    @TR: My pleasure prof.
    @Szerlem: Spot on about Russell. I have a copy of the Argumentative Indian, but sad to say have only read it in bits and pieces. Just like my copy of Snow. I'm starting to think I may really have ADD.

  • At 11:46 PM, Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said…

    "I sometimes find myself torn between two streams of thought."

    I guess that goes for a lot of us, doesn't it? Teetering between rationality and fatalism. But, I think that, at times, our perspective is guided by our state of mind.


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