Daniel J. Smith
There is a paradox in the title of the book named Gandhi and Philosophy by Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan. It is not only that Gandhi did not see himself as a philosopher, or that he never claimed for his writings the status of a philosophy. More significantly, as the authors point out in their book’s opening pages, he tended to associate the history of philosophy with the very “disease” he was trying to cure, which he described as nothing less than a “Satanic civilization” born of “the black age.”1 At the same time, it is clear that his voluminous corpus contains precise and highly original re-workings of many classical philosophemes including truth, nature, law, technology, religion and medicine, as well as conceptual creations of his own such as satyagraha, non-violence, and a singular vision of swaraj or self-rule. How, then, is one to go about writing a book under this title? One way out of the paradox is to insist, against the letter of his texts, that Gandhi was a philosopher after all, and to translate his concepts into the language of pre-existing canonized philosophical traditions. This is the approach generally favored by academic philosophy in the West, which has recently been attempting to revitalize itself by assimilating many new historical figures into its ranks. Another is to focus only on insights that can be understood in isolation from the more comprehensive vision he puts forward across his whole body of work. If the former obviously does violence to his thought to make it fit a contemporary agenda, the latter distorts the systematicity of his writings, wrenching terms out of their context and practically courting misunderstanding, as in the common but profoundly mistaken idea that non-violence is primarily a political strategy in Gandhi, a mere means to some external end rather than, as Dwivedi and Mohan put it, being a component of a wider “theological anti-politics” in which non-violence marks “the state of nature itself” (6).
Dwivedi and Mohan forego both of these all-too-easy interpretive options, instead explaining that theirs is a “philosophical treatise of a non-philosophical object” (3), which they clarify through an illuminating analogy with the philosophy of art. The artist may not consider their work to be a piece of philosophy, but the philosopher of art nonetheless creates genuinely philosophical concepts to talk about it. These new creations not only enrich our understanding of the artwork in question but can even become important contributions to philosophy in their own right – think of Heidegger’s analysis of Van Gogh’s peasant shoes or Deleuze’s notion of the baroque. In the same way, the authors bring philosophy to bear on Gandhi’s thought not only to bring a fresh perspective to his work, but just as importantly to make an intervention into contemporary philosophy itself. Dwivedi and Mohan do not share Gandhi’s hesitancy towards philosophy – they are both staunchly committed to it, signing off all their texts as “philosophers based in the subcontinent” – and so alongside Gandhi’s ideas one finds in the book many concepts of their invention, such as “calypsology”, “criticalization”, and “hypophysics”, to name just a few. It is a profusely creative approach which presents us with a new and often unfamiliar Gandhi.
A key component of this unapologetically philosophical account of Gandhi is an insistence on the systematic nature of his writings. In contrast to those who cynically pick and choose whatever they like from his work to fit their pre-existing political ends (thereby constructing what the authors playfully call a “Mahatma Propagandi” ), but also in contrast to some serious scholars like Anthony J. Parel, who has argued that “Gandhi was not a philosopher in the normal sense of that term, much less a system builder”, Dwivedi and Mohan share Akeel Bilgrami’s intuition that Gandhi’s writings contain a certain “integrity” (20), arguing that it has a “generative order” (1) and even an “original systematicity” (10) which can be fully understood only when considered as a whole.2 They describe their task as “bringing forth Gandhi’s thought in its unity” (10), which has Hind Swaraj at its centre but draws freely from the 100 volumes of his Collected Works. References to Western philosophers abound, but this is never out of a desire to justify Gandhi from the standpoint of Western philosophy; Dwivedi and Mohan are not interested in the game of legitimation. As they put it, “instead of illuminating Gandhi through a previous master, we attempt here to sketch the startling originality of his thought through which we then set up comparisons between Gandhi and relevant Western thinkers” (10). When he is compared to, say, Aristotle, Spinoza, or Heidegger – the giants of the Western philosophical tradition who seem to this reader to share the most with Gandhi as interpreted by Dwivedi and Mohan – it is never about “translating” his thinking into another philosophical language, but about bringing out those differences that best highlight the novelty of his system.
Of course, the more one insists on a systematic interpretation of an author, the harder it becomes to deal with the inevitable “problematic” passages, and Gandhi is certainly not immune to this problem. Again, Dwivedi and Mohan eschew simple answers here, reading even the most ethically and politically questionable components of Gandhi’s thought in terms of the systematic framework they develop in the book, which promises therefore to illuminate not only his celebrated notions of “nature, truth, violence, resistance, and the end” (1), but also “his sexual experiments, […] his resistance to democracy and women’s liberation movements, his racism towards the Africans and the untouchables of the subcontinent, and his startling political positions with respect to great events of the early twentieth century such as the Nazi camps and the atomic bomb” (2). In other words, the authors do not apologise for Gandhi. Dwivedi and Mohan have little interest in policing his texts or moralizing at them, even when they encounter ideas to which they object, even strongly. This is once again in stark contrast to the strategy, currently popular in the Western academy, of adding epicycle after epicycle to one’s interpretation of a philosopher in order to delegitimate and ignore any portions of their corpus that one doesn’t like.
Systematically interpreting the thought of a figure as prolific as Gandhi, they write, “is possible only by constructing an orienting star or a guiding concept” (12), which in this case is their notion of “hypophysics”. Because it functions for them as the basic principle of Gandhi’s system, it is related to many of its other components: they explore its relationship with metaphysics (22), language (28), the body and the mind (57; 73), good and evil (23), violence (177), and even Gandhi’s particular form of racism (149; 190 – more on this in a moment). Dwivedi and Mohan borrow the word from Kant, who uses the term just once in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In the relevant passage Kant is talking about the impossibility of deriving morals from popular taste. He wants to distinguish his project of a genuine metaphysics of morals from those in which they are impurely blended with something else; he names anthropology, theology, physics, and “occult qualities (which could be called hypophysical)” (16) as possible sources for this foreign mixture.3 As far as I know, no-one before Dwivedi and Mohan has picked up on this rather curious parenthetical comment or tried to explain it, even in the vast continent of Kant scholarship.4 The other items in this list are familiar enough; it’s generally well understood how Kantian practical philosophy differs from attempts to ground morals in a theory of human nature, in accounts of the divine, or in any of the sciences including physics. However, this final possibility has been generally overlooked, even by specialists.
What could it mean to draw moral value from “occult qualities” of nature? I suspect that Kant was thinking here either of the “spirit seer” Swedenborg, and the practices of mesmerism and animal magnetism that caused such an enthusiastic commotion in his day, or of the Rosicrucianism that was starting to become a powerful political force, and which would soon occasion serious problems for him once it had allied with the state and its censors.5 Whatever Kant himself may have had in mind, Dwivedi and Mohan see contemporary expressions of this idea in theories of Gaia, the re-enchantment of nature, and the notion of “Mother Earth” (18), each of which ties nature immediately to value. They note Gandhi’s interest in esoteric traditions especially during his student days in London, where “religion, occultisms, and pantheism swirled together” in a heady brew that ranged “from Carlyle to the German romantics and American transcendentalists, from Madame Blavatsky to eastern mysticism and Neoplatonism, and French occultists, and from Edward Maitland and Anna Kingsford of the Esoteric Christian Union to the vegetarian and anti-vivisection movements of the day” (29). Dwivedi and Mohan’s wager is that Gandhi’s thought is a systematization of ideas that flow from these various strands, marking the most consistent attempt to think this idea of hypophysics through in its unity, obtaining a “precision” in its “synonymization of nature and value” not reached by other attempts before or since (18).
Gandhi’s hypophysics so defined is the “underlying science of nature” supposed to be prior not only to physics, but also to the divisions that are so characteristic of modern Western philosophy understood as metaphysics (15). Most importantly for Dwivedi and Mohan, hypophysics is prior to any split between “nature” and “value” as it thinks nature as always already moralized. Where someone like Kant would argue that nature is pre-moral, neither good nor evil in itself, hypophysics wants to think what is prior to the distinction between the moral and the non-moral; any separation at this level would already be “occidental”, for Gandhi (123). Or to put it slightly differently, hypophysics contests the idea that morals are the result of a fundamental split in nature, taking them instead to be present at the most fundamental level of reality. Hypophysics, they explain, is prior even to physics, being the science “from out of which physics as a discipline is derived” (15). Importantly, this position differs from other attempts to bring together nature and the good in Western philosophers like Spinoza, because for Dwivedi and Mohan such a bringing-together presupposes that the domains had previously been taken apart, relying on the ingenuity of the philosopher to achieve the desired unification through geometric demonstrations or intuitive knowledge. Hypophysics seeks not to unite that which has been divided, but to reach the level before any separation has taken place; to go “underneath” (hypo-) physics rather than “beyond” (meta-) it.
If hypophysics names the basic principle holding this system together, “scalology” is its way of accounting for particular things. Although hypophysics thinks that all is nature, this does not mean that it takes nature to be distributed evenly everywhere. There can be more or less nature in individual beings – indeed, the amount of nature inherent in a thing can even be determined in terms of a specific quantity (32) – and since there is no split between existence and morality, this more or less also determines the individual’s moral value. As they put it, “there is more nature in the pebble than in a bullet, in the storm than the airplane, in the deaths of plague than in the antiseptics” (31); the former are more valuable than the latter. How do we determine how much nature there is in any particular thing? Gandhi, on Dwivedi and Mohan’s reading, takes the highly innovative step of making speed the defining characteristic: “speed is the determinate existence of each thing” (96); “being is determined as speed, to be is to speed” (37). But this is not speed understood in terms of motion or movement (kinēsis); rather, everything that is, is determined in relationship to an intrinsic speed which it has been given by its Maker, which functions as its individual essence. The natural intrinsic speed of rock corresponds to the deep time of geological processes (“petrology is the science of the speed of rocks” ), just as the natural speed of the human being corresponds to the locomotive power of our legs. The actual movement of a being can deviate from its natural speed, and this proximity or distance also determines its ethical value, according to hypophysics.
It is in relationship to this theme that Dwivedi and Mohan understand Gandhi’s trenchant criticisms of Western civilization as a cult of ever-increasing speed. Gandhi’s famous critique of railways, in the language of this scalology, is that they mark an attempt to speed up the movement of human beings beyond the natural limits of our bodies, and hence as a decisive move away from nature, which is best approximated by his idealized version of village life. It is not that Gandhi valorizes the slow in itself, only that machinery, medicine and civilization have led to such a massive increase in speed in virtually all domains of human experience, and with such deleterious consequences, that the primary ethico-political task of modernity is to slow down. The good, he writes memorably in Hind Swaraj, “travels at a snail’s pace”, whereas “evil has wings” (46). Where once “only a few men wrote valuable books”, now, “anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people’s minds” (225n.56), a comment that surely registers more strongly than ever now in the age of twitter, whether or not one finally agrees with it. One could say, then, that Dwivedi and Mohan’s Gandhi develops a politics of radical anti-accelerationism. It is not a question of whether a particular form of acceleration is good or bad, left or right; if the primary problem of modernity is its runaway increase in speed across practically all walks of life, then acceleration, which raises this increase to a higher power, must be resisted, no matter what form it takes. This resistance to speed will have to take on a different form from most other conventional models of resistance that take aim at the state, the police or other such institutions; Gandhi’s famous, radically innovative account of what political action must look like in the face of this challenge is a major theme of later chapters.
It is clear, then, that this philosophical interpretation of Gandhi carries significant political implications; at stake is no less than a new diagnosis of political modernity (and indeed, they strongly oppose those who would read Gandhi as merely pre-modern). In the final pages of the book they make explicit its connection to the present, declaring that “the theological anti-politics which is unfolding in the subcontinent […] is a species of Gandhi’s own hypophysics” (215). This is, I believe, a reference to the right-wing Hindu nationalist politics which has been speeding through India in recent years, and for which Gandhi’s name remains an essential point of reference. Specific political implications of this new reading of Gandhi have been explored in the duo’s many popular writings and media appearances since the book’s release; I will close this article with a discussion just one aspect of their political intervention, namely the use of the concept and framework of “hypophysics” to draw a comparison between caste and race in the context of a surprising remark of Gandhi’s.
Although Gandhi was at times an important critic of certain excesses of the caste system, notably in his campaigns against the practice of untouchability, he nevertheless continued to defend its basic principle, which is the injunction that, as they put it, “there shall be no miscegenation” (189). B.R. Ambedkar has taught us to understand this ban on intermarriage between groups as the genuine essence of caste, which he defines as the “superposition of endogamy on exogamy”.6 However, Gandhi’s particular version of this prohibition rests on a rather striking analogy which, as Dwivedi and Mohan note, did not fail to baffle many readers during his lifetime. He writes: “just as it would be considered improper for a brother to marry his sister I would make it improper for a person to marry outside his or her group which may be called a caste”.7 One might have thought that sex outside of one’s own purportedly “natural” caste group would be the very opposite of incest: where miscegenation violates rules against mixing with an out-group, incest seems to violate contrary rules of remaining too closely within one’s in-group, an issue of too much difference between sexual partners, rather than too much proximity.
As is usually the case with sexual taboos, however, things are not as straightforward as they may initially appear. The first clue that there is indeed a surprising positive relationship between these terms comes from their etymology. Both “incest” and “caste” are derived from the same Latin root term castus meaning pure, unpolluted, or chaste, a semantic constellation that is retained by both words in modern English. Incest, by this logic, literally means violating purity, polluting, or defiling chastity. This can happen through a transgression of the law against having sex with a close family member, certainly. But it can also happen when one does not respect the laws preserving the cleanliness allegedly maintained by the strict sexual separation of social groups. In this etymological sense, breaking the laws of who may sleep with whom, or even who may eat alongside whom, could also be described as a form of “in-cest”.
More tellingly, however, one can find this same surprising nexus of incest, miscegenation, and the defence of a caste system understood as the enforced separation of social groups within other forms of racism. Here is sociologist Henry Hughes, an important American theorist of white supremacy writing in Mississippi in the mid-1800s:
Men have not political or economic duties only. They have hygienic duties. Hygiene is both ethnical and ethical; moral duties are coupled to the relation of races. […] Degeneration is evil. It is a sin. That sin is extreme. Hybridism is heinous. Impurity of races is against the law of nature. Mulattoes are monsters. The law of nature is the law of God. The same law which forbids consanguineous amalgamation forbids ethnical amalgamation. Both are incestuous. Amalgamation is incest.8
Here the moral law prohibiting miscegenation (“ethnical amalgamation”) is said to be grounded directly in divine nature, which may explain why Hughes can so quickly move to equate it with incest, an ethico-sexual taboo which has long been described as a sin against nature. Having thus identified miscegenation and incest, he draws some conclusions regarding the need for an enforced segregation of groups in daily life:
The societary organization must be such […] as to eliminate [the sexual intercourse of two races]. If the elimination cannot be immediate; it must be proximate, and progressive. But to this, caste is necessary. For sexual intercourse follows social intercourse. In a society of two races, therefore, ethnical segregation is essential. (Ibid., 242)
Of course, what Hughes means by “caste” here is not the elaborate varnashrama system defended by Gandhi, nor is it the necessarily multiplicitous hierarchy of groups that Ambedkar takes to define the caste system as it exists in India. Nevertheless, for Hughes, the essential thing is the prevention of all mixing between groups, a prohibition not only of sexual intercourse but also social intercourse, which should be enforced by a ban on practices like drinking from the same public water fountains. If such things are not criminalized, Hughes thinks, simple laws of cause and effect make “incestuous” miscegenation inevitable. Because this other form of racism seeks to address the same fundamental social problem as caste-based racism, we should perhaps not be so surprised that the resultant legal and extra-legal norms enforcing this separation end up looking similar in certain respects. Compare, for example, Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari’s recounting of his time working for a Brahmin doctor, where the rice with which he was paid for his toil had to be dropped into his hands from a great height so the server would avoid his polluting touch; even the plate from which he ate was not allowed to enter the house.9
Though Hughes refers here to a “law of nature” rather than to any positive law, his suggestion that there should be a legal identity between miscegenation and incest did in fact make its way into the statute books. §1147 of the 1880 code of Mississippi reads:
the marriage of a white person and a negro or mulatto or person who shall have one-fourth or more of negro blood, shall be unlawful, and such marriage shall be incestuous and void; and any party thereto, on conviction, shall be punished as for a marriage within the degrees prohibited by the last two sections.10
The last two sections referred to here are indeed the laws which specify exactly which familial relationships do and do not constitute incest, and which outline the punishment for their transgression.11 So it is not only that incest and miscegenation are comparable crimes which carry the same penalty. What is being suggested here is again that they are identical; a mixed marriage is not “like” incest but is incestuous and is treated as such by law. They constitute the same legal violation, because, per Hughes, they are the same ethical crime.
In addition to this ethical, sociological, and legal identification of miscegenation and incest, Werner Sollos has shown that this conjunction has been an important part of the racist imaginary through its appearance as a narrative trope in American literature.12 Sollos provides many examples, the most significant and famous of which is Faulkner’s 1936 Absalom! Absalom!, whose action also takes place in Mississippi in the 1800s.13 Central to the novel is the relationship between siblings Henry and Judith Sutpen, and Henry’s enigmatic friend Charles Bon, whom he meets while at university. Though Judith and Bon are the ones getting married, their relationship also functions as a vicarious substitute both for Henry Sutpen’s thinly veiled incestuous desire for his sister and his homosexual desire for his friend. Though a fraught and delicate balancing act, Judith and Bon’s engagement functions as a relatively successful sublimation of Henry’s illicit desires in the early part of the novel’s timeline. However, all that is thrown into disarray when the siblings’ father Thomas Sutpen learns of the engagement. He reveals to Henry that in fact, Charles Bon is no mysterious stranger, but his own son from a previous marriage, making him the half-sibling of both Henry and Judith. Disbelieving his father at first, Henry wrestles with his conscience as he goes off to fight in the civil war, coming to terms with the fact that Bon is his and Judith’s half-brother and eventually justifying the incest to himself. Seeing, on Henry’s return, that this revelation was not enough to stop the marriage, Thomas Sutpen reveals to Henry the other shocking secret about Charles Bon: he is part black. Thomas had married Bon’s mother during the time he spent in Haiti as a younger man, returning to America only when he found out that she was not Spanish, as he had assumed, but of mixed race and therefore of no use to his dynastic ambitions. Though Henry had been able to make peace with his beloved sister marrying her own half-sibling, the thought that she would marry someone with even a “a little spot of negro blood” (247) was unthinkable, and he immediately rode back to the plantation Sutpen’s Hundred to kill Charles Bon. In his final moments, Bon speaks the devastating line: “so it is the miscegenation, not the incest, which you can’t bear.” (285) For Faulkner’s character, then, miscegenation is not merely equivalent to incest, but worse. This is so even when the comparison is between a strong case of incest (between half-siblings) and a very weak form of miscegenation (not only Charles Bon but also his mother had passed for white for most of their lives; it is not made clear whether he was even aware of his mixed ancestry before his last days).
What do we learn from this rather surprising combination of terms within the imaginary of American anti-black racism? First, it reveals that there are indeed similarities between certain logics of race and certain logics of caste, especially when the latter is conceived in terms of the forced imposition of endogamy on groups who would otherwise tend to exogamy. This has proven to be a controversial claim to make in a political context dominated by Hindu nationalism; few things seem to summon the troll armies as rapidly as does making this comparison, especially when Gandhi’s name is involved. Nonetheless there are clearly parallels, and comparative work along these lines remains an important and productive task. Second, it reveals for Dwivedi and Mohan that this notion of hypophysics is indeed connected to problems of race and caste, as it helps clarify this otherwise difficult to explain identification of opposed taboos, which both have an appeal to moralized nature as their ground. In this hypophysical way of thinking, there are certain “natural” groupings of people with a speed that is proper to them. This is what defines a caste or a racial group, which need not be unified by descent, heredity, or other biological or quasi-biological categories, but only by certain determinate normative relations in relation to the family and the social body. Sexual relations between brothers and sisters are a deviation from that natural speed, but so is the practice of intermarriage, when thought hypophysically.
I said above that Gandhi and Philosophy is no book of apologetics; this invocation of a “hypophysical racism” (190) reveals it to be quite the opposite. In the end, Dwivedi and Mohan come out as strong critics of the Gandhian system that they have laid out for us. Though they clearly appreciate many aspects of his thinking, the hypophysical system that comes out of it, in their judgment, is ultimately a form of “nihilism” (215). It functions less as a positive political-philosophical project they recommend we take up than as a critical-diagnostic tool. This has become even more clear in their more recent texts, where the concept of hypophysics is used to identify something that has gone awry in various analyses of the contemporary situation, as in their diagnosis of certain responses to the global coronavirus crisis as “hypophysical” (those who attribute moral qualities to nature in the context of the pandemic are said to commit a hypophysical attribution of good and evil to nature, interestingly reminiscent of the Gandhi–Tagore debate about the 1934 Bihar earthquake analysed in the book [26-27]). I said above that Gandhi and Philosophy is not a judgmental book concerned with sorting out what the authors think Gandhi got right from what he got wrong; to do so would be to violate the structural integrity of his thinking that they do so much to establish. But one senses that, in the end, the book is first and foremost a warning, a warning not to be seduced by that powerful species of thinking named “hypophysics” that still seems to maintain such a powerful hold over us.
Daniel J. Smith is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Memphis. Among his recent publications are “An Ethics of Temptation: Schelling’s Contribution to the Freedom Controversy,” European Journal of Philosophy, 2020 and What is the Body without Organs? Machine and Organism in Deleuze and Guattari, 2017.