ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Case for Humanistic Theory

This article responds to a debate in Economic & Political Weekly on the state of theory in Indian academia. While earlier interventions focused on the “who” and “how” questions related to the subject and work of theory, a more fundamental question is addressed here: Why theory at all? In our age of permanent crises, the necessity to make a case for theory that can interpret the world rather than change it for the good has arisen due to the dominance of problem-solving and solution-driven approaches adopted by the social sciences.

In the first two decades since the turn of the millennium, Economic & Political Weekly has twice carried in its pages a vibrant intellectual discussion on the state of theory in India. It began with Gopal Guru’s (2002) provocative distinction between “theoretical Brahmins” and “empirical Shudras” in Indian academia, and a call for Dalits to become the subjects of their own theory. Sundar Sarukkai (2007) responded by highlighting the radicality of Guru’s ethical demand of theorising based on lived experiences as opposed to the Habermasian construct of philosophy as a purely detached pursuit of reason. While recognising the significance of Guru’s intervention, Sarukkai, however, differentiated between the ownership of experience and the authorship over its articulation, and probingly enquired if conflating the two was at all tenable. This is not because of philosophy’s avowed objectivity, but the necessarily partial and particular relationship between the subject and the phenomenon of experience as such. The next reflective engagement with theory brought together Prathama Banerjee, Aditya Nigam, and Rakesh Pandey, who collectively ruminated on the process of theorising ideas and practices across thought-traditions and time-spaces (Banerjee et al 2016). Side-stepping trite binaries such as east/west, universal/particular and tradition/modernity, they proposed the contemporisation of thought beyond the immediate context in a way that it possessed traction extending into our own time.

If the initial debate asked, who was the subject of theory, the later deliberation focused on how to do theory. But in the third decade of the 21st century, Indian academia must encounter a challenge which is more fundamental than the who and how questions associated with the theoretical enterprise. Living in a time that is being darkly characterised as “an age of permanent crisis,” marked by the repudiation of liberal and democratic consensus and irreversible climate change, when existential survival is itself perceived to be in grave peril, at a very elemental level, the question that intellectual work has to grapple with today is: Why theory at all? In other words, if the need of the hour is prompt action for the effective solution of global problems, what is the point of the slow and time-taking task of theorisation that can at best interpret the world rather than change it for good?

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