Philosophy and Social Theory in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Philosophy and Social Theory in Sri Lanka

11 April, 2021

In my essay in the Sunday Observer on March 28, 2021 on the status of social sciences and humanities in Sri Lanka, one of the issues I flagged was the relative lack of critical theoretical engagement which negatively impacts knowledge production in this broad disciplinary area. I want to explore this issue further today.

My point of departure is a 2016 essay titled, ‘The Work of Theory: Thinking across Traditions’ cowritten by Prathama Banerjee, Aditya Nigam and Rakesh Pandey. One of the things the trio note is, “Theory appears as a ready-made body of philosophical thought, produced in the West, which either fascinates us” “or makes us turn away”.

According to them, “The more theory-inclined among us simply pick the latest theory off-the-shelf and ‘apply’ it to our context, notwithstanding its provincial European origin, for we believe that ‘theory’ is by definition universal.” What they are referring to is the fallacy of the belief in theories’ universality that most of us seem to take for granted.

With reference to India, they argue, “Our relationship to theory is dependent, derivative and often deeply alienated.” I fully agree with this characterisation. But this is a condition that explains the situation in much of South Asia as well and not simply in India alone. On the other hand, this dependence is not only about theory. It applies equally to philosophy as well, which is closely related to social theory.

Theory and Philosophy

In terms of Status of Theory and Philosophy in Sri Lanka, we can ask ourselves if Sri Lankan social sciences and humanities offer a serious critique of and substantial engagement with dominant bodies of knowledge in Western philosophy and social theory. Surely, the answer is in the negative. When exploring this situation, we can see two broad tendencies as far as our universities are concerned: 1) In most instances, many academics have embraced these bodies of work uncritically and unreflectively and teach them as an integral part of their courses and 2) Some others have crudely discarded them as ‘alien’ merely because these ideas are from the ‘West.’

It is in the first manifestation that the beginning of the teaching of philosophy in local universities can be located along with ‘teaching’ theory in various social science and humanities disciplines. But pedagogically, this knowledge is generally presented as mere summaries of the original ideas. Formal philosophy teaching programs have now effectively collapsed in terms of their rigour while institutional remnants in the form of archaic academic departments continue.

In neither case, there is any serious engagement with these ideas including if their alleged universalist appeal makes contextual sense in our social, cultural and political situations. To put it differently, a reflective attempt to deal with theory and philosophy has not emerged from Sri Lankan academia in social sciences and humanities in recent times.The gap created by academia’s relative lack of interest in theory and philosophy has been filled since the latter part of the last millennium and the beginning of the present millennium by two other trends. The first of these trends has emanated from the outright discarding of Western theory and philosophy merely due to their Western genesis and alleged affinity with Christianity. The attempt here has been to replace what has been rhetorically discarded with an extremely restrictive and superficial understanding of Sinhala cultural and political history as well as a nebulous understanding of the vast spectrum of knowledge offered by Buddhism.

Both have been presented as an invitation to theory and philosophy. Some manifestations of this trend have even promoted conversations with spiritual beings -- such as God Natha -- as a formal body of knowledge, affectively blurring the borders between empirical facts and matters of faith in the construction of knowledge.

At a fundamental level, the problem in this approach has always been its extreme lack of depth in comprehending what is being criticised as well as what is being promoted along with its forays into the hazy domains of faith. What is known as Jathika Chitanaya or ‘national modes of thinking’ typifies this approach.

The second trend is an extra-academic and popular enthusiasm in theory and philosophy that has mostly played beyond universities and has been promoted by what might be called small bands of peripatetic, medicant, sloganeering and loud rhetoricians. But they have certainly acquired a significant following among undergraduates in local universities and among some teachers.

Collectively, they have embraced theory as a form of ultimate truth akin to a secular system of radical belief. These preachers and their followers generally discard systems of traditional belief and local cultural traditions and have adopted their own understandings of western theory and philosophy as their ‘religion’ and have presented it as a medication for all known societal ills.

But they too, like their university-based counterparts, have merely embraced newer bodies of theoretical and philosophical knowledge from the West and their better-known ‘gods’ such as Derrida, Foucault and latter-day ‘saints’ such as Žižek, without any reflective critique and engagement with these ideas to explore how best they might be understood, deployed, re-cast or discarded in our context or in the broader context of the global South.

So while the exit of the discourse on theory and philosophy from academia to the popular domain was a pedagogically important transformation, it simply became a matter of newly emergent bands of blind leading yet other bands of deaf. As a result, despite its pedagogic potential, this intervention made no difference to Sri Lankan social sciences and humanities in the long term. The lose amalgamation of people once known as the X-Group typified this approach.

The realm of possibilities

But none of these approaches had the necessary intellectual capacity or vision to address the fundamental issues that afflict Sri Lankan social sciences and humanities. That is due to the complete lack of creative and reflective engagement embedded in these approaches and the vocal and pronounced intolerance of the plurality of ideas typified by them. The question is, whether anything be done about this situation? I can offer one recent and incomplete example of an effort in which I have also been involved with my colleague Ravi Kumar that attempted to address the situation within the institutional and pedagogic limits imposed on us by virtue of our professional location. But this is merely one possible model among many.

My example is the mandatory PhD course offered to graduate students in sociology at South Asian University titled, ‘Social Theory, Society and Modes of Thinking.’ It replaced the more conventional and didactic course, ‘Advanced Sociology Theory’ that was previously in its place like in most similar academic departments in sociology, which introduced students to a body of conventional Western social theory.

Compared to this, our aim was to introduce something more open, continuing and conversational while introducing our students and ourselves to the writings of scholars from the Global South that included colleagues such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Aníbal Quijano, Ashish Nandy, Enrique Dussel, Walter D. Mignolo, Maria Lugones, Partha Chatterji and Prathama Banerjee.

This is because theses scholars have offered a critical and reflective engagement with Western theory and philosophy.

They have offered ways of thinking through the hegemonic ideas of ‘Western masters’ rather than uncritically discarding them or religiously embracing them. In this backdrop, we also offered our students selected readings from South Asian thinkers from the precolonial and colonial past to explore if we could derive a body of contemporary theoretical and philosophical knowledge from this engagement.

These readings included the works of B.R. Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule, Periyar or Thanthai Periyar and limited forays into selected aspects of the Buddhist system of knowledge. In this experiment, we were also quite mindful, in trying to deal with the universalist claims of Western theory and philosophy, we also had to ensure that we would not fall into the parochial traps of nativism, cultural exclusivism and revisionist and reactionist historiography that have emerged throughout South Asia as an alternative form of thinking.

Admittedly, ours is an incomplete and ongoing effort without an end yet in sight. It might even fail in the long term. But in the very least, rather than a blind endorsement of Western social theory and philosophy or a mere critique of their potential limitations within their universalist claims or an outright rejection of them in favour of a reactionary, dangerous and supposedly ‘local’ modes of thinking, we have offered an intellectual space for engagement with these ideas and explore something new in the context of thinking from our own region as well as contemporary ideas coming from other parts of the Global South as well as the West. It is an interactive space.

Intellectual curiosity

It seems to me, if adequate political will and intellectual curiosity exists, there is enough space for such an engagement in Sri Lanka too. But to do that, one must also become familiar with what is being critiqued; what is currently offered from the Global South; as well as political and ethno-cultural concepts and philosophical and conceptual categories emerging from our own political histories, texts as well as the region’s thinking in the philosophical-religious domain ranging from Buddhism to Jainism to the thinking of the Charvaka school.

But it is quite evident that such a broad and wide-ranging engagement has hardly been imagined in the universities or in the ‘noisy’ corners of social media and the slippery slopes of the streets of rhetoric where self-styled mendicant theoreticians roam.

The bottom-line, however, is without such an engagement with theory and philosophy, Sri Lanka’s social sciences and humanities in general would merely remain ordinary for the foreseeable future. And without a robust tradition in critical thinking and training in social sciences and humanities in our universities and beyond, the way we deal with ideas would be burdened by an unhelpful poverty of intellect.