Gandhi, Marx & the ideal of an ‘unalienated life’


Akeel Bilgrami, philosopher of language/mind PHOTO/Ismaili Mail

Interview with Akeel Bilgrami.

Akeel Bilgrami is an Indian philosopher of international eminence and scholarship. He graduated from Elphinstone College, University of Bombay, in 1970 and went to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Thereafter, he moved to the United States and earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1983. He currently holds the Sidney Morgenbesser Chair in Philosophy at Columbia University. Bilgrami was the Chairman of the Department of Philosophy from 1994 to 1998. He was the Director of The Heyman Centre for the Humanities at Columbia University from 2004 to 2011 and the Director of the South Asia Institute at Columbia University from 2013 to 2016.

Professor Bilgrami’s main intellectual interests are in the philosophy of mind and language, and in political philosophy and moral psychology. His PhD thesis, titled “Meaning as invariance”, was on the subject of the indeterminacy of translation and issues concerning realism.

Among his books in the philosophy of language and mind are Belief and Meaning (1992) and Self-Knowledge and Resentment (2006). His writings in the other central area of his intellectual interests, political philosophy and moral psychology, have significantly influenced and continue to influence our public discourse on politics, ideology, religion, modernity, culture and history. Along with Marxist intellectuals such as Samir Amin, it is Bilgrami who has exposed and provided high-ranging criticism of liberalism and its limitations as a political ideology in our contemporary times.

According to Bilgrami, liberalism and liberal politics have their own limitations and cannot save us from the savagery of capital. In this way, he intellectually provokes us to go beyond liberalism and reimagine an alternative political vocabulary. His philosophy rejects the ideology of capitalism and envisions an alternative as the way forward for humanity. This alternative is, of course, Left-centric and socialistic in perspective, and Bilgrami sympathises with the Left politics in his home country and others.

His writings and philosophical ideas on the themes of secularism, modernity, Marxism and Gandhi have produced new perspectives on these and contributed significantly to our intellectual debates. His highly influential essay “Gandhi, the Philosopher” provides a fresh reading of Mahatma Gandhi. Bilgrami unearths the integrity in Gandhi’s ideas, contrary to the popular notion of inconsistency and fragmentation in Gandhi. As a philosopher, Bilgrami, despite being an atheist, does not completely reject the scope of religion having a critically instructive role in our time. As he says, “religion is not primarily a matter of belief and doctrine but about the sense of community and shared values that it can sometimes provide in contexts where other forms of solidarity—such as a strong labour movement—are missing, and it sometimes provides a moral perspective for a humane politic as it did in the liberation theology movement in Central America.”

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