Are all forms of ‘questioning’ of the same importance?

by Ritwik on November 2, 2014

This post is prompted by the points made by Mario Da Penha (Twitter handle: @mlechchha) in a series of tweets, now compiled here, critiquing historian Romila Thapar’s approach to the notion of questioning of authority in a recent speech entitled “To question or not to question: that is the question”.

De Penha is troubled that Thapar basically turns the idea of questioning those in authority into an academic exercise, and in his tweets cites the case of the sufi Sarmad, who, as per De Penha, was an authentic and vital challenger to authority without taking recourse to the Enlightenment tradition.

De Penha believes that he is pointing out a major flaw in the discourse of intellectuals, who as per him, privilege the ‘lettered’, ‘Rational’ (with a capital R) enlightenment discourse over other modes of protest and interrogation.

These points, as far as I am concerned, appear to be (largely) trivially true, but where they are substantive, they are false and dangerous.

That is, it is undoubtedly true that there are many different modes and styles of interrogation of established authority and social structures. It is also undoubtedly true that different such modes have been used through the ages, in different societies, to highlight the need for social change.

However, De Penha (and many others today) seem to think that all such different modes of protest can be usefully bunched together on one plane. The idea that different types of questioning can be analyzed and graded for effectiveness is disclaimed.

The intentions of questioners, whatever these might be and howsoever they might be determined, are applauded. But their methods are not subjected to sufficient critical scrutiny, barring a consequentialist analysis in terms of “success”.

It is my submission that a ‘Rational’ critique is more substantive, powerful and effective, than other modes of critique. I doubt Romila Thapar, or other intellectuals, would deny that mystics and poets have usefully critiqued social ills. However, by definition, a rational critique offers up three features that may be missing in other critiques –

– a framework for analysis: on what grounds, precisely, is a present system being challenged? This requires an idea of what is desirable, and why that is so.

– a replicable, universalizable, systematic approach: based upon the framework of analysis, actions can be subjected to critical scrutiny irrespective of the contingent factors (of time and space and personality)  that surround them. This is in contrast to all protest and questioning getting restricted to the local and the temporally instant.

– an alternative: a rational critique, being framework based, requires and facilitates the articulation of alternative systems and in this sense, gives a path of progress, a sense of purpose to those who want change.

Some further points:

I see no reason why such a rational approach as outlined above needs to be particularly identified with the European Enlightenment or with European or Western or modern discourse as such. There are very important and particular things about the Enlightenment and modern scientific rationality, such as individualism and the idea of disenchantment, but analytic discourse per se is not a monopoly of the European Enlightenment.

It has often happened that the critical ideas brought out poetically by mystics such as Sarmad, who De Penha refers to, are taken up later by systematic philosophers and theorists. When this happens, the ideas of poets and mystics and other ‘alternative’ styles of protest are invested with the features I have outlined above and thus acquire greater potentiality. That is to be lauded, but we may miss out on such things if we, knowingly or unknowingly, insist that all criticality is on the same plane.


PS. I am indebted to Aaditya Dar (@AadityaDar) for bringing Da Penha’s tweets to my attention.

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