Pratap Bhanu Mehta is President, Center for Policy Research, Delhi, India's leading think tank. He studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford. He did his Ph.D in Politics at Princeton. He was Associate Professor of Government and of Social Studies at Harvard, where he taught political theory. He returned to India as Professor of Philosophy and of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University, before assuming his present position. He has held several visitng appointments, including NYU Law School, Harvard and University of Pennsylvania. He has published widely on political theory, constituional law in India, and Indian politics. Recent publications include, The Burden of Democrcay, and The Oxford Companion to Politics in India (co-edited with Niraja Jayal). He has done extensive public policy work, including being a member convenor of the Prime Minister of India's National Knowledge Commission. Through his column, he regularly engages with the public sphere and was named, by Indian Express, as being. amongst the top ten opinion makers in India in 2008 and 2009. He is also a recipent of the Malcolm S. Adisheshiah Award for the social sciences 2010.
My own intellectual journey has been marked by four abiding themes. I started professional life with an engagement with intellectual history and the placid waters of the Scottish Enlightenment. But over the years my work and public life have converged in three related themes. How does one think of justice under conditions of diversity? What is the character of the profound transition India is undergoing? And what do these historical experiences portend for the possibility of self-knowledge?
These are three large themes, and my own intellectual limitations should caution me against engaging with all of them. But I began to find that these questions ineluctably fed into one another. Ironically, the realization only deepened as I left the world of professional political theory for a more hybrid existence of part academic, part policy wonk, and part engagement with public argument in India. Often policy debates could not be understood without penetrating deep into the historical forces that were producing them; however, equally mundane debates in public life deeply implicate assumptions about what we are like as human beings and what we wish to be. The books offered below are probably not all the ones that have shaped me the most deeply, yet they are the ones I found myself returning to in the most unexpected contexts. In some ways, what most of them share is a deep interest in moral psychology, the ultimate source of ethical and political judgment alike. What they also share for the most part is the best form of moral education, an ability to unsettle, without pushing you into a self-defeating abyss. Many of them also combine an ability to work at so many levels simultaneously: history, sociology, economics, politics, public argument, psychology, and even theology. They are important because they are inescapable.
Ved Vyas, The Mahabharata
Every single act, human or divine, leaves an imprint on the world and shapes it. The world itself is a product of an accumulation of such acts. The trace that any act leaves cannot be erased or be undone. Yet all acts are done under what are, at best, conditions of partial knowledge. We do not have any assurance that the world will take up our acts as we intend them; we do not have any knowledge of the causal chain into which they will be inserted, what train of events will unfold in their wake. Add to this mix, the fact that our self-knowledge is limited. What combination of unexamined motives drives us? In a world so thick with causality, how can one snatch a semblances of a moral order? What does it mean to act in a way that the world is preserved, and that the fullest possibilities of self-conscious beings are realized?
The Mahabharata, which is the basic template of Indian culture, is one of the most astonishing stories ever told of a world ever threatening to go out of control, where traces of past actions threaten to subvert the future of all agents. Even the righteous seemed trapped in webs of their own making, making dharma—upholding the world—ever impossible. It is also the source of a rich moral vocabulary. Although there is redemption, for good and evil alike, there is little consolation. Although it contains the Bhagavad Gita, the book is not didactic in any sense of the term; indeed, it is an antidote to didacticism. But the cumulative effect is this. It induces thoughtfulness in the deep sense of the term. The thought that every act leaves a trace, that the moral order is fragile, is an exhortation to responsibility. And although the book, and even its central message, is often seen to be providing argument forms of violence, its deeper message is a subtle inculcation of a form of renunciation, a precondition for overcoming violence. Personally, this book is central to an examination of the ends of human life. Its interplay of doubt and epiphany constitute the poles of existence.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
This book was an inoculation against a will to simplicity that often becomes totalitarian by abridging the complexity social experience. Reflections is a masterly diagnosis of the sources and consequences of presumption. The arrogance of intellect, the blindness of ambition, the will to mastery, and the distortions induced by resentment are unmasked with an unmatched relentlessness and subtlety. And all this is done with a combination of prescient political analysis, deep sociological insight, high moral principle, subtle moral psychology, and low political invective. Despite his encrusted reputation as a conservative, Burke was, on most issues, on the side of the future.
Burke was the first to see that an erasure of history is an easy prelude to the decimation of peoples. While not a democrat in the shallow political sense that we now use the word, Burke's moral psychology was democratic in a much deeper and profound sense. His suspicion of presumption in all its forms was animated by a deep humility that marks a genuinely democratic sensibility. The thought that Burke feared most was that one could be a judge in one's own cause. And this applied, in equal measure, to individuals and classes, ages and cultures. Any age or culture, group or individual, taking themselves to be an uncontested source of authority, were bound to carry with them a will to domination. For someone who so profoundly understood the limits of knowledge, Burke could often be too confident of his own knowledge of limits. He remains a model for those who engage with public life.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
This work of austere moral nobility remains one of the most convincing accounts of justice. There is simply no better account of justice that, as carefully and subtly, works out the implication of the moral claim that we are all free and equal as individuals. The question—How can the moral claims of free and equal individuals be reconciled with the requirements of social cooperation?—has a long and profound history. However, this majestic work, which could build on and transform Rousseau and Kant in ways that perhaps did even more justice to both the inviolability of individuals and their ineluctable diversity, was truly inspirational for our generation.
Much of the critical commentary has focused on technical aspects of the first third of the book: Would we choose the two principles Rawls argues we would under the original position? But it is the final third of the book that moved me deeply and gave it moral depth. Rawls's technical innovation and philosophical sophistication can disguise the fact that he was an acute moral psychologist. His portrait of how we could all feel somewhat at home in a liberal society, without erasing our individuality, has always remained convincing. Rawls's rather austere prose could pack a deep moral punch. Like all great monuments, this became the book to knock down, and generations of scholars have experienced their moment of academic bliss by refuting Rawls. But over the years, on several readings, I found that A Theory of Justice anticipates and defuses most criticisms, whether from socialists or conservatives, civic republicans or libertarians, theologians or communitarians, skeptics or idealists. It does so with a deep sense of argumentative integrity that remains a model. It is the case that liberals’ political philosophy is, to paraphrase Albert North Whitehead's comment on Plato, a series of footnotes to Rawls.
The Indian Constituent Assembly Debates
The great American and French constitutional assemblies have been memorialized in two ways: as significant episodes in the history of democratization and as great theoretical moments. The Constituent Assembly that drafted the Indian Constitution has received no such recognition. Partly, it was the whiff of suspicion that unlike the French and American revolutions, the political theory of the Indian Constitution was, as it were, derivative. Partly, it was the strange condescension regarding Indian democracy. Yet in retrospect, both those worries have been more an expression of the condescension of those who express them than they have been an assessment of the importance of this Constitution for the future of mankind. India's Constitution, while it freely borrowed, was an extraordinary experiment in human affairs.
To craft a text that would give a moral and political identity to a people whose spirit had long been subjugated by colonialism, whose deep internal diversity posed a challenge, whose poverty and illiteracy were unconscionable was a challenge like no other. And to craft it under the shadow of war and violence was a deed of heroism, indeed. Yet this Constitution, for all its inevitable limitations, did create a new idea of India. While the reality of India does not often live up to the idea of India, the idea remains a potent force. The debates that informed the choices embodied in this Constitution make riveting reading and still provide incomparable insights into the moral and political frame of modern India. The dignity with which all the central issues in a modern democracy—representation, rights, institutions, equality, liberty, forms of government, structures of judicial power, the aspirational goals of a modern state—are debated in ways that leave a deep imprint. These arguments remain the starting point of any engagement with public argument in India.
Michel de Montaigne, Essays
I doubt anyone has ever been able to examine their own motivations and responses to the world with the kind of gentle skepticism that Montaigne did. His claim that making sense of an individual's experience, or of a culture, involves a recognition of the limits of knowledge has always served as a reminder that it is not easy to possess even that which is most intimately our own. His constant strategy, to make the familiar look strange and distant and the distant look uncannily familiar, has the cumulative effect of posing a deep question. Is not the limit of comprehension an indispensable element in comprehension itself? This moment is the recognition of a deeper form of self-knowledge. More effectively than any other, this book ponders just how strange and in some senses mysterious we are. This punctures the pretensions of anyone who might claim to exercise power over us.
But Montaigne then deploys this moment in the service of an ethical method that remains compelling in three respects. First, it unsettles so many of our metaphysical oppositions, between reason and passion for instance, that it alerts us to how our categories obscure more than they reveal. Second, it shifts the focus of ethics from rules and commands to the ability judge reflectively. Third, the attention to our creatureliness is the beginnings of revulsion toward cruelty. In some ways, Montaigne's is the more psychologically compelling rendering of the idea that each person is an end in themselves. This is because he also induces a kind of renunciation, by moving us to question whether through power or knowledge we can really ever possess anyone, least of all our own selves.
From Max Weber (edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills)
The essays in this book constitute the most powerful account of the dissonances of modernity. However, unlike philosophically more abstract accounts of modernity, this is a book in which existential pathos multiplies with each page, particularly in the two essays on religion and “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation.” Modern culture was attuned to a project of rational mastery; yet rationality itself was, at its core, tied to irrational foundations. For Weber, religion, at its core, was an attempt to find a theodicy for the world, an attempt to make the world ethically rational. Yet the more humanity spun webs of meaning, the more we found that there was a hole at the center of the enterprise. The more we sought to make the world ethically rational, the more it turned out to be immune to rational ordering. The differentiation of society into different spheres, each governed by its own compelling logic, made it unlikely that we could experience the world as a harmonious whole. Science was a noble activity, but there could be no such thing as a scientific account of the meaning of science. Like Nietzsche, Weber thought that, ultimately, it was nobler to accept the ethical irrationality of the world than to negate it in the vain hope that another more rational and less ethically dissonant world than this can ever unfold for us.
For Weber, allegiance to a religion that, in the face of recalcitrant realities, claimed to make the world coherent was a sacrifice of intellectual integrity. For him, this was equally true of academic prophecy that claimed to restore ultimate moral intelligibility based on secular knowledge. Weber's account of these questions can be debated, and I cannot often agree with its conclusions. But its questions haunt in a very personal way. And no other work combines such an acute sense of empiricism with a deep connection to existential questions.
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations
Adam Smith, along with David Hume, represented the best combination of two sensibilities. First, there was a belief in the possibilities of human nature. The course of human passions and interests, if it could be liberated from the encumbrances of metaphysics and concentrations of power, could allow a decent social existence. In a post–twentieth-century world, this confidence in human nature seems a bit optimistic. But this defense of ordinary human nature has remained important. The second sensibility was what Duncan Forbes called “skeptical Whiggism,” a belief that progress is possible, though not through a politics of good intentions. The foundation of liberating change often lies in venial motives and the distant consequences of actions undertaken for entirely different reasons. For instance, the book almost never has anything morally approving to say about the privileged. Yet it could keep a sharp eye out for how the venality of the privileged could provide opportunities for progress.
Smith's judgments on range of issues, from the decline of feudalism to colonialism, to the persistence of slavery in republics, to the ways institutions work, were models of sober causal analysis. The economic analysis in the book was quite compelling, not such for its support of free markets but for its subtle sense of what kinds of arrangements work under what circumstances. Smith was also an acute moral psychologist. However, it was the calm sobriety and dispassionate sense of historical judgment in the pages of the work that remained a model. The book's historical account of the development of Europe was not just a powerful critique of the state; it was also an argument against “projectors” of any sort who would wish to reorder history on first principles. In Smith's version, history advances through unexpected disequilibria, one that requires the sobriety of cool judgment, not the self-satisfaction of simple first principles.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Although ostensibly a book about the United States written with the French experience in mind, this book has, at every step, read like a book about the paradoxical journeys of equality and its political consequences, seen more universally. This book is simply the most complex and psychologically subtle discussion of the way in which a democratic social state reconstitutes our sense of self and society. It has three strands particularly relevant for a democratic transition that has been my preoccupation: that of India. The first is the relationship between political and social equality. The second is the way in which the ancien régime reinscribes itself in new guises, even in a democratic social state The third is the way in which the forms in which inequality was experienced in the past continue to inflect the meanings of equality in a democracy, as if the nature of the original sin defines the meaning of redemption.
While the book is often read as a meditation on the relationship between equality and liberty, and equality and greatness, it is also one of the most acute diagnoses of four mystifications that go with democracy. His characterization of democracy as conservative rather than revolutionary can be both reassuring and challenging. The self-conception of society that all human beings are equal can also serve to disguise real inequality. And equality turns out be a feeble force against inequalities like race and ethnicity, which are marked by layers of deep historical resentment. Finally, there is an almost Pascalian sense that even in a democracy that has affirmed our moral worth there is a perpetual anxiety and restlessness. His exaggerated sense of paradox provokes more thinking than the rigors of social sense and his deep quest to distinguish what is necessary from what is contingent are always sobering. His sense of the relationship between proximate causes and deeper historical trends remains a model of thinking about how we got to where we are.
Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India
Each Indian discovers their own India. This book, however, remains for me the indispensable starting point in understanding the idea of modern India. Nehru, for all his limitations, remains an incomparable statesman. Though I have come to have serious disagreement with Nehru's vision of history, he still inspires awe. As the closing pages of this book demonstrate, he himself wrestled with the wisdom of his own political judgments. But the condescension of posterity cannot take way from the fact that the India he dreamed of and created along with others of that astonishing generation of Indians—Gandhi, Tagore, Patel, Ambedkar—is a monumental political achievement. We forget, too, that it was also a story in immense political improvisation and occasional blunders. But The Discovery of India still remains the necessary starting point if you want to come to terms with that story.
And that story remains important to my intellectual life and public engagement. Nehru's version of history reflects his own personality a great deal, and he often aestheticizes the course of Indian intellectual history in order to avoid dealing with it deeply. But he constructs the most plausible narrative of India's past that could have gone in the service of an old civilization trying to reinvent itself as a new nation. This is the narrative that defines India, even when Indians try to resist it. Over the years, I have also been consistently humbled by Nehru's own agonizing about his decisions, his capacity for self-criticism, and his acute sense that politics involves making judgments under uncertainty.
Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Kabir
Kabir, a medieval Indian saint, was always central to spiritual life, largely because of the incomparable musical renderings of his poetry by Kumar Gandharva, who gave some of the most incandescent moments in Indian music. This starting point led me to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi's book on Kabir, and it opened up a range of intellectual horizons. It was a model of how to do Indian intellectual history, in a way that was, at once, both philosophically deep and historically acute. Even more than its argument about Kabir, its pithy renditions of the streams of Indian thought, including yoga, tantra, and the inner conflicts of Indian culture around the ends of human life, opened up deep questions about Indian intellectual history.
Dwivedi's book also represented a moment in Indian intellectual life that now seems all but impossible to attain. The book still conveyed a sense that Indian intellectual history was not merely a matter of intellectual curiosity; it was, as well, a medium through which to engage with the deepest questions of human existence. Yet it also suggested a sense in which this tradition needed to be transcended; that it had indeed flourished, not by rejecting its past but surpassing it. Indian intellectual history is almost completely colonized by two concerns: either the quest to enlist intellectual history in the service of nationalism or the quest to debunk it in the name of social justice. Dwivedi, without belittling these concerns, was trying to make space for the claim that the “social” does not exhaust the ontology of human existence. This book was also my reentry into the world of letters in Hindi.