“Gandhi, Newton, and Enlightenment”: University Lecture delivered by Professor Akeel Bilgrami in Low Memorial Library Rotunda, October 25th.


Akeel Bilgrami is Columbia’s secret big deal. He’s not a Foner, Sachs, Khalidi, or even a Massad, but… Bilgrami… that sounds familiar right? If it doesn’t, Alan Brinkley’s introduction to Bilgrami’s University Lecture (“Gandhi, Newton, and Enlightenment”) confirmed overwhelmingly that it should. For, Bilgrami’s CV ranks him high in the upper echelons. He is a founding member of Columbia’s Committee on Global Thought, teaching a seminar on secularism and diversity this semester with Nicholas Dirks and Partha Chatterjee. As director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities, he’s attracted first tier academics like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish. And then, his day job: Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy – a position last held by aesthetics superstar Arthur Danto. In this capacity, Bilgrami has produced heavy-hitting work in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and moral psychology. 

If undergraduates know Professor Bilgrami, though, it is because he’s made them cry. His blistering CULPA reviews relate the even more blistering intellectual “pimp-slaps” received in his introductory philosophy class; “I have a whiplash tongue,” one review quotes him as having said, “and I won’t hesitate to lash you all over with it!”

To hear Bilgrami loose his whiplash tongue on an academic quandary, however, is to realize his frightening brilliance. The problem linking Gandhi, Newton and that great behemoth the Enlightenment was simply this: is there in the secular continuity with the religious? Bilgrami began his lecture by disputing Salman Rushdie’s claim that secular humanism is just another religion. Perhaps, he suggested in his slow, lilting, and sometimes barely audible British accent, Rushdie meant simply to avoid charges of blasphemy. To seriously equate the two, though, is to sell both short. And yet, Bilgrami took pause. There is something here worth talking about. Beneath Rushdie’s remarks is something that presses on the minds of perhaps every liberal secularist: is there something in my beliefs which is continuous with the religious?

This laid the backdrop for Bilgrami’s interpretation of Gandhi. But, which Gandhi? His Gandhi is reduced neither to the simplicity of the brave icon of nonviolence championed by the peace movement, nor to the intransigence of the closed-minded, anti-Enlightenment figure rebuked in so many critiques. Bilgrami is the odd Anglo-American philosopher who reads Gandhi’s writings as serious political philosophy. This is problematic, especially, Bilgrami argued, when confronted with Gandhi’s claim that it is the predisposition of science to lead to a way of thinking that would be disastrous for politics.

How could this claim possibly receive any tangible explanation? Bilgrami opted to reconstruct, of all things, the debates surrounding the rise of the new science in the 17th century. The story began simply. Isaac Newton and the Royal Society, in applying their scientific paradigm to the world, had come to view matter, and thereby nature as inert. Their metaphysic was of God as detached watchmaker, and their view of nature was thus of something with no value in itself which was to be exploited. This view was not innocent, for, Bilgrami pointed out, it was sold by the intellectuals to the Anglican hierarchy and embedded itself culturally, justifying conservative monarchy on the basis of its orderly rule, and eventually rearing its head in the ugliest of ways – in the form of British colonialism. If infantile natives had not the scientific rationality to use their resources correctly, then it was brute nature for the enlightened to conquer and control.

This was not, however, the only Enlightenment. Moving slowly, interjecting long pauses rather than filler noise, even and especially in the fury of an argument, Bilgrami pulled a name from the air: Spinoza. It was Benedictus de Spinoza and other freethinkers who had challenged the orthodox Enlightenment, had formed the so-called radical Enlightenment. Pantheists, they had seen matter and the world as suffused with God, suffused with value. This had generated a very different politico-religious world view, one where government and religion ought to be democratized, because God was seen in other people.

Then, all at once, Bilgrami was giving some sense to his confusing lecture title. He was no longer the storyteller, but an ad hoc intellectual historian. Two things suddenly cohered. The theism and pantheism of Newton and Spinoza offered little in the way of argumentation that could e of serious interest to modern critics of science. In fact, they can fairly obviously be cleaved away from scientific rationality without doing any harm. Gandhi’s remarks, thus, in what appears to be a critique of the Newtonian view of disenchanted nature, not only find their home in the 17th century, but furthermore, form an attack on a dubious “thick” scientific worldview which does not constitute an attack on scientific rationality itself.

And then, Bilgrami was philosopher. Not only can we see Gandhi as part of continuous trend of thinkers who challenged the notion of a thick scientific worldview, he suggested, but as a precursor to our current philosophical and political struggles. Even if pantheism does not seem like a radical alternative today, seeing the world as suffused with value does. “This implies,” Bilgrami reached his climax, “a normative claim.” If certain population numbers are not simply that, but are in addition neediness, this applies a moral imperative on the individual to alleviate poverty. “This glass of water,” Bilgrami paused, raised the water from his podium, “is not something to own, but an opportunity to satisfy desire. This is something that science could never study.” Like Gandhi, Bilgrami is no opponent of science. He reserves his whiplash tongue for those who think that science tells us all we might ever want to know.