Friday, May 27, 2005

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

We were flipping channels last night and settled on "The West Wing". The episode was named after the classic logical fallacy Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc [after, therefore because of it].

Earlier in the day, (via Amit) we'd read Jerry Rao's Indian Express column on English where he praises Macaulay, whose gift of English he credits for India's later genius. The self-styled Macaulay-putra (!) writes:

I, for one, am grateful to Macaulay. Without his gift to us, so many of us would be lesser individuals, not just different individuals. I use the word “lesser” quite deliberately. English is not just a medium or a means to an end; it is part of our very consciousness. The interesting thing is even while writing on completely Indian subjects, this consciousness has been a powerful force. Just consider the individuals and their writings: Vivekananda on Vedanta, Coomaraswamy on Indian Art, Aurobindo Ghose on Vedic Mysticism, Radhakrishnan on the Hindu View of Life, Krishnan on Indian Wildlife, Srinivas on Caste, Zakaria on Indian Muslims, Sircar on Indian History, Guha on Indian Cricket, Nandy on Indian Science, Kakkar on Indian Sexuality, Khushwant Singh on Indian Gossip. The list is endless.

We think quite highly of Jerry Rao, but on this he's missed the mark. It's true that English is a powerful force that's shaped modern Indian identity and ideas, but this is solely because history placed English in our context and resourceful Indians ran with it. If we'd not been touched by English, as was the case before our tumult with The British East India Company, we'd still be resourceful and Vivekanada would likely still write on Vedanta, Coomaraswamy on Indian Art, Aurobindo Ghose on Vedic Mysticism, Radhakrishnan on the Hindu View of Life, Krishnan on Indian Wildlife, Srinivas on Caste, Zakaria on Indian Muslims, Sircar on Indian History, Guha on Indian Cricket, Nandy on Indian Science, Kakkar on Indian Sexuality, Khushwant Singh on Indian Gossip. Their respective genius was surely not a consequence of English, rather it poured itself powerfully into English as a convenient expression-vessel.

Jerry Rao's argument is a "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" fallacy. It also goes against the brilliant Indic view that there are many rivers flowing to the ocean, each equally valid for our spiritual or material journeys. Elite India has traveled over English in search of great power status, but there are other rivers too we might have taken if English weren't available.

We do agree with him that India needs to get over its colonial hangover and accept history for what it is, then move on. But, lets please not swing excessively to the other side.

4 comments:

RS said...

I was directed to your post from Amit Varma's blog and I think you make a good argument. However, while I agree with you that all the great individuals named in your response (and in the original article) would have probably gone on to write equally great works even if the English language had never come to India, and that the greatness of their works does not therefore owe anything to the English language, there is the opposite side of the coin to consider as well (and by my reading of the quote you included, what Jerry was referring to in the first place). Were it not for English, would we as Indians from different parts of the country have been able to read _all_ these works? Given the number of languages in India and given that these great individuals came from different parts of India and would have had a different native language, and we the readers, in turn, come from different parts of India and therefore would have probably known one or two but not all of the languages these works would have been written in, wouldn't you agree that English has enabled us to read all their works and not just some?

Or is it your pont-of-view (POV) that even if the British had never come to India and spread the use of English, India would have (miraculously!) united together and agreed on one nationwide language which each of these great folks would have used for their magnum opi? If that is the case, given the difficulty that the spread of Hindi in the south faced, I'd have to say I disagree. :-)

Primary Red said...

RS:

Well, you make a great point, but you assume India's end-state -- i.e., India as it exists today as an anglophone political union.

Given that fixed end-state, you're likely right. Absent English, we might have had a tough time reading each other's genius. Or, conversely, perhaps English has been an obstacle to broader acceptance of, say Hindi, and were India not have endured British colonialism, Hindi might have been more popular. It's hard to know in retrospect.

It's also not clear what political shape India might have taken absent the colnial period. It could have emerged as a, Europe-style, fragmented entity (sometimes at war with itself, at other times trying to federate) or perhaps, say, a Tamil King might have conquered the north, or a Sikh King the south (in such cases, clearly neither English nor Hindi would likely be dominant).

None of these alternate end-states are necessarily lesser than what we have today.

We can therefore conclude that, absent English, India would have been a very different place, a valid point Jerry makes, but not a lesser place, his invalid point we dissent from.

Best regards.

Nearly Man said...

That Milan Kundera's stories were available in Hindi, much before Kundera was widely known in the West is an example of how if we had no English we could still have known about knowledge expressed in other languages.

Laks said...

RS wrote: Were it not for English, would we as Indians from different parts of the country have been able to read _all_ these works?
To mention a few: Kamban translated Ramayana into Tamil (which itself is a classic). Other classics like Kalidasa's Shakuntala were wildly popular both in literary and play forms.

The older people of my family are all polyglot, though their highest schooling is 10th std or +2 at the most. Our generation has been busy reading Mills&Boons trash and lazy enough not to learn another Indian language.

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