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Knowledge and Human Liberation: Towards Planetary Realizations

Knowledge and Human Liberation: Towards Planetary Realizations

by Ananta Kumar Giri

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Human liberation has become an epochal challenge in today’s world, requiring not only emancipation from oppressive structures but also from the oppressive self.  It is a multidimensional struggle and aspiration in which knowledge – self, social and spiritual – can play a transformative role. ‘Knowledge and Human Liberation: Towards


Human liberation has become an epochal challenge in today’s world, requiring not only emancipation from oppressive structures but also from the oppressive self.  It is a multidimensional struggle and aspiration in which knowledge – self, social and spiritual – can play a transformative role. ‘Knowledge and Human Liberation: Towards Planetary Realizations’ undertakes such a journey of transformation, and seeks to rethink knowledge vis-à-vis the familiar themes of human interest, critical theory, enlightenment, ethnography, democracy, pluralism, rationality, secularism and cosmopolitanism. The volume also features a Foreword by John Clammer (United Nations University, Tokyo) and an Afterword by Fred Dallmayr (University of Notre Dame).

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Anthem Press
Publication date:
Key Issues in Modern Sociology
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

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Knowledge and Human Liberation

Towards Planetary Realizations

By Ananta Kumar Giri

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Ananta Kumar Giri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-934-6



An Adventure and an Invitation

Human liberation has been a key concern with humanity from the dawn of history, and in the contemporary moment, it manifests before us as an epochal challenge, as the prevalent guarantors of liberation in modernity – liberalism and socialism – have left us alone in the street. The dead end at which our familiar projects of social emancipation and human freedom are at present urges us to rethink liberation as part of a new seeking, striving, and experimental subjectivity at the level of both self and society Human liberation means liberation from the oppressive structures of society as well as from one's ego and urge to control (which is one of the most important sources of social evils, as Teressa Brennan (1995) would tell us). It also means to relate positively and affirmatively to new schemes of being and becoming and to create alternative spaces of self-realization, intersubjectivity and solidarity In this practice and quest of human liberation, knowledge plays an important role, and Jürgen Habermas and Sri Aurobindo, two soul-touching thinkers of our time, help us to understand the multi-dimensional pathways of linkages between knowledge, human interest and human liberation. Their pathways of seeking and striving touch us not only as cognitive schemes but as intimations of a Beyond. Though Habermas is conventionally looked at as approaching knowledge only through rational argumentation, there is a suggestion of a Beyond in him. It is no wonder then that in many of his works, as for example in Between Facts and Norms: Towards a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, Habermas (1996) talks of the need to proceed with "weak transcendental idealizations" in our practices of communication and the acquisition of knowledge (also see Habermas 2002a). Habermas (1990) himself urges us to realize that "cognition, empathy, and agape" must be integrated in our quest of knowledge and "concern for the fate of one's neighbor is a necessary emotional prerequisite for the cognitive operations expected of participants of discourse" (Habermas 1990, 182). Such a suggestion for a Beyond (whose full potential, however, is not fully explored in Habermas (2002a), though in his recent work he shows more openness to such invitation) can be deepened and broadened by a dialogue with Sri Aurobindo.

In his Knowledge and Human Interest, published more than four decades ago, Habermas brings to the center the significance of self-reflection in knowledge. But at this stage, self-reflection for him seems to primarily emerge from the psychoanalytic situation of dialogue between the doctor and patient, though germs of its origin in mutually validating pragmatics of communication are already visible here. In his later works, self-reflection has a broader ground of origin and nurturance, namely in our participation in processes of moral argumentation and public sphere. This practice of knowledge can be deepened by Sri Aurobindo's pathway of the yoga of integral knowledge, which enables one to have a deeper "self-awareness," "self-consciousness" and "self-realization," to discover, know and realize the transcendental dimension in self, society and Nature, and the inherent connectedness between self, other and the world (Sri Aurobindo 1992). This simultaneous dialogue with Habermas and Sri Aurobindo also touches the very core of ontology and epistemology in thinking about and practices of knowledge. In Habermasian knowledge and human interest, knowledge mainly consists of knowledge of self and society, but despite the Habermasian distinction between ego-identity and self-identity Habermas does not touch the transcendental dimension of self. Habermas does touch upon knowledge of nature through the category of sciences, but this knowledge is mainly one of technical control.

A dialogue with Sri Aurobindo helps us to bring the very conception of knowledge into a foundation-broadening and cross-civilizational dialogue; for example, thinking about knowledge of self, society, nature and god/transcendence as part of an interconnected field of autonomy and interpenetration. The relationship among them is not one of dualism alone, and though this relationship has been predominantly thought of and lived in a regime of pervasive dualism within modernity (of which Habermas still continues to be a passionate advocate), there is a non-dual dimension in their logic of constitution and embodiment characterized by what J. N. Mohanty calls "multi-valued logic," or what J. P. S. Uberoi calls "four-fold logic of truth and method" (cf. Mohanty 2000; Uberoi 2002). A dialogue between Habermas and Sri Aurobindo can not only broaden the ontology of knowledge, but also help us realize that the distinction between ontology and epistemology that has been valorized in modernity needs to be transcended by embodying what can be called an ontological epistemology of participation, taking cues from recent transformations in both epistemological and ontological imaginations such as "virtue epistemology" and "weak ontology." But here a Habermasian mode needs to be ready for a foundational bordercrossing, for despite his critique of positivism, he is within a modernist epistemological privileging in his conception and method of knowledge and denial of ontology. Even though this denial has to some extent to do with his understandable, much needed and admirable fight with the ghost of Heidegger, Habermas seems now to turn this into a new orthodoxy, thereby showing how critical theory is incapable of critiquing its very foundational presuppositions, such as valorization of rational argumentations, performative competence, validity claims, and linguistic intersubjectivity rather than emotional intersubjectivity (cf. Craib 1998). But the problem of dualism and instrumentalism does not vanish by being part of communicative action, and knowledge as human liberation, not only as human interest, calls for developing non-dual and non-instrumental modes of relationships which are not automatically guaranteed, even when we shift from positivism to a Habermasian communicative rationality (see Bhaskar 2002).

A dialogue between Habermas and Sri Aurobindo has another potential for a foundational border crossing for critical theory, and this has to do with realizing the very limits of knowledge itself. The Habermasian articulation of knowledge and human interest valorizes knowledge and communication, and here Habermas's critique of the "illusion of pure theory" does not really acknowledge the limits of knowledge itself in a foundational sense. Consider here the following lines of the Ishopanishad, one of the foundational texts of spiritual universality coming from India: "Andham Tamah Prabishyanti Jo Avidyam Upasate, Tato Vuya Ibate Tamah Jo Vidyaam Ratah." It means, "those who worship ignorance are steeped in darkness but those who are steeped in knowledge are also steeped in darkness." Therefore to be steeped in the valorization of knowledge and communication to the exclusion of other practices of self cultivation, such as listening, silence and self-emptying vis-à-vis one's will to power and will to arguments, and connectedness with the world – not only the human social world but also with the world of nature and transcendence – is to be steeped in blindness, and we now need a new critical theory which helps us to understand the limits of knowledge and human interests. Critical theory in its modernist incarnation started with a Marxian critique of the valorization of capital, to which the proponents of the early Frankfurt school added a helpful critique of the valorization of state and the media. But now, especially in these days of communicative revolutions, we need a new mode of critique and reconstruction which combines a critique of the valorization of capital and power with a critique of valorization of knowledge and communication, enabling us to understand the very limits of knowledge itself.

Knowledge, Human Interest and Human Liberation: A Brief Introduction to Jürgen Habermas and Sri Aurobindo

Jürgen Habermas is an important interlocutor of our times. Born in 1929, he has continued to fight for the rise of a democratic Germany from the ashes of its Nazi past, and is an outstanding public intellectual. Sri Aurobindo (1871–1950) is a major seeker and experimenter who along with Gandhi and Tagore can be considered one of the three important makers of modern India, whose strivings also included the goal of a better humanity. Sri Aurobindo was the most important leader of India's freedom struggle before the arrival of Gandhi, and in many ways can be looked at as having germinated major themes which were to preoccupy Gandhi, such as "back to the villages" (Sri Aurobindo 1973; see Heehs 2008). During this struggle, he was once implicated in a bomb case and arrested. While in the prison he had a spiritual vision and gained a new calling to strive not only for India's political independence, but for a new spiritual dawn for the whole of humanity, for a manifestation of a new evolutionary consciousness. After being acquitted in the bomb case Sri Aurobindo left British India and came to Pondicherry in 1910, which was then ruled by the French. He there embarked upon a multi-dimensional journey of seeking and creativity. He edited a journal named Arya and wrote his major works, The Human Cycle, The Life Divine and The Syntheses of Yoga as regular columns in this journal. Besides these works, Sri Aurobindo had also written, among others, Ideals of Human Unity, Future Poetry and the epic Savitri, which chronicles the journey of a soul in her quest of overcoming death and suffering, and which was nominated several times for a Nobel Prize in literature.

Sri Aurobindo is one of the very few modern Indian thinkers who does not reject reason outright but accords it a primal place in human development and evolution. Sri Aurobindo also does not reject modernity outright; instead his The Human Cycle puts reason and modernity in perspective. When we read this we find similarities between Sri Aurobindo and Habermas. Sri Aurobindo here points to the crucial significance of reason in understanding the validity of traditions. Like Habermas, Sri Aurobindo also stresses the need "to universalize first of all the habit of reason," but "the reason which is to be universally applied, cannot be the reason of a ruling class: for in the present imperfection of the human race that always means the fettering and misapplication of reason degraded into servant of power to maintain the privileges of the ruling class. It must be the reason of each and all seeking for a basis of agreement' (Sri Aurobindo 1973, 184, emphasis added).

Like Habermas's plea for undistorted communication, Sri Aurobindo also sensitizes us to the distortion that power can introduce in the working of a rational discourse and the realization of even its inherent emancipatory potential. But for Aurobindo, even though reason is so important for moral development and evolution (both phylogenetic and ontogenetic), it cannot be a sole foundation of morality. Aurobindo accords this role to spirit. An ideal society, for Aurobindo, is not a mere "rational society" but a "spiritual society" which does not abandon rational foundation but deepens and transforms it. A society founded on spirituality is not governed by religion as a mere social custom. A spiritual society regards man not only as a "mind, a life and a body, but as a soul incarnated for a divine fulfillment upon earth, not only in heavens beyond, which after all it need not have left if it had no divine business here in the world of physical, vital and mental nature" (Sri Aurobindo 1962, 213).

Both Sri Aurobindo and Habermas are passionate critics of systems which deny human flourishing. Much of Habermas's passion can be attributed to his struggle for radical democracy and his fight against Nazism in his native Germany. Sri Aurobindo was also a critic of Nazism and contributed in his own ways as a yogi to the fight against the Nazis. While Habermas speaks of the colonization of the life world Sri Aurobindo uses a much more passionate language of criticism, such as barbarism going beyond the familiar distinction between civilization and barbarism. Habermas (2002a) is now a critic of the marketization of the globe and his critique can be deepened by the critical perspective of economic barbarism that Sri Aurobindo outlines in his Human Cycles: "Just as the physical barbarian makes the excellence of the body and development of physical force ... so the vitalistic or economic barbarian makes the satisfaction of wants and desires and the accumulation of possessions his standard and aim" (Sri Aurobindo 1962, 94).

While there are similarities between Habermas and Aurobindo, there are some major differences. One of this has to do with Habermas's theses of the linguistification of the sacred – the sacred has now lost its aura and is part of ordinary language. As is well known, Habermas makes a shift from philosophy of consciousness to philosophy of language and looks at the sacred linguistically. This is related to the issue of poetry and prose in thinking about language, and also to critique and reconstruction. Habermas is critical of any poetic use of language as he is afraid that it can dislocate humans from their reason and make them servile followers of tyrannical crowds, like the Nazis. But in his own work we find a poetic dimension. Consider the following lines of Habermas: "This ontology fetishizes words, bows down before their roots, believing words to be pure only in their venerated origins ..." (Habermas 2002a, 65). Habermas directs his energies here against Heidegger, but poetry in Heidegger was not only a poetry of glory, it also embodied a deep "pathos of shakenness" (Shanks 2001). Sri Aurobindo, much like Heidegger, has a broader conception of language and dialogue which can be understood by reading what Derrida writes about his conversations with Levinas: "... we often addressed to one another what I would call neither questions nor answers but, perhaps a question-prayer, a question prayer that would be anterior to all dialogue" (Derrida 1999, 13). For Sri Aurobindo, poetry is a mantra, an invocation of self, social and world-transformation. Writes Sri Aurobindo (1948) in his legendary epic Savitri:

A lonely freedom cannot satisfy
A heart that has grown one with every heart
I am a deputy of the aspiring world
My spirit's liberty I ask for all.

Knowledge and Human Interest: Towards Critical Dialogues

Knowledge and Human Interest is one of the earliest master pieces of Habermas which lays the ground work for his subsequent meditations. It contains Habermas's rich and multi-faceted dialogue with Hegel, Kant, Marx, Fichte, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Pierce and Freud. The main concern there is how knowledge and human interest have been conceptualized in these thinkers. But while carrying on careful dialogue with these masters, Habermas develops a point of view of his own concerning knowledge and human interest. In this we find a tilt towards both psychoanalysis and pragmatism. While psychoanalysis provides him the possibility of combining therapy and critique, pragmatism provides him an alternative to both ontology and epistemology as it urges him to focus on the "lack of alternatives to a practice in which communicatively socialized subjects always already find themselves engaged" (Habermas 2002a, 118). Pragmatism also provides him with democratic possibilities in his elaboration of knowledge-constitutive interests: "The anti-elitist, democratic, and thoroughly egalitarian attitude that shapes and penetrates the work of all the pragmatists was far more important than the contents of any particular essay on politics or democracy" (Habermas 2002b, 228).


Excerpted from Knowledge and Human Liberation by Ananta Kumar Giri. Copyright © 2013 Ananta Kumar Giri. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

 “This book by Ananta Kumar Giri is very timely as the author discusses one of the key trends of contemporary global changes – knowledge, human liberation and planetary realizations. Indeed, sometimes too much attention is paid to the economic and also political dimensions of globalization while the role and transformations of the ‘human capital’ do not get much attention. Giri shows that what is really becoming the greatest value nowadays is the intellectual and moral background of civilization concentrated in the person, that in the globalizing world knowledge is acquiring the status of a high value and as the most important precondition for social development. In this book high academic standard is combined with the clearly displayed humanistic position of the author who advocates for bridging the East and the West, the First, Second, and Third Worlds on the background of shared knowledge and morality that underpins it. In his humanistic socio-historical stance Giri, at all significant distinctions in approaches, resembles another searcher of the world civilization’s foundations, Karl Jaspers. Indeed, Giri, an Indian who has worked intensively overseas, combines the East and the West in himself what makes his book even more interesting and instructive for the reader.” —Dmitri M. Bondarenko, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow

“Perspective taking with a deep knowledge of reality and an imaginary view of future is a major requirement of the ‘critical theory,’ and it can be met only in a work like this book, and by a scholar like its author.” —Tong Shijun, Director of the Institute of Philosophy, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

“Ananta Kumar Giri’s new book is an attempt at fostering epistemological awareness, making us conscious about the presuppositions within which we think and act. What it argues in particular is that this awareness is hidden in forms of knowledge that are permeated by power. Therefore we are forced to find this awareness by critical self-observation. To do so Giri draws on a series of, at first glance, highly divergent writers such as Habermas or Sri Aurobindo, an Indian social thinker and many others, to find a basis for this self-liberation. In addition, he adds what can be called an emotional component to this process of self-liberation, the quasi-religious idea of joy disentangled from repressive affects that permeate us through knowledge and acting. This book is to be recommended to all who want to have a look beyond what is normally discussed in treaties on epistemology. It makes us think more deeply about our normative presuppositions, about new foundations of a critical theory and about the role of religion in our craft as social and political theorists.” —Klaus Eder, Professor of Sociology, Humboldt University, Berlin

“‘Knowledge and Human Liberation’ not only calls for transcivilizational and transcultural dialogues but practices them in a beautiful and engaged manner. Ananta Kumar Giri juxtaposes for instance Jürgen Habermas with Sri Aurobindo, Martha Nussbaum with Mahatma Gandhi, and Fred Dallmayer with Daisaku Ikeda, drawing important lessons from each encounter. For him, personal self-development, global democracy and cultivation of our cosmic humanity go hand-in-hand. Giri is replacing anti-colonial anger with a dialogue on cosmopolitanism; and simultaneously reminds Western progressive cosmopolitans of their limited and biased understanding of other cultures. Warmly recommended reading for anyone interested in the future of humanity!” —Heikki Patomäki, Professor of International Relations, University of Helsinki

“Ananta Kumar Giri’s book is one of the first major works of a new era. The global South has passed through stages of copying, denying and outflanking the global North. Indian scholars have been busy trying to adapt modernization theory to India, to develop a nationalist frame of reference and to portray Indian traditions as an alternative to the modern West. In all of these attempts, the West has remained the frame of reference. We are now entering an era in which the global South is actually starting to develop new frames of reference. Giri’s book is situated at this junction and in one important regard even beyond it. It calls for a global epistemology conceived as conversation of differing traditions and frames of references. The book exemplifies this conversation with regard to the European critical epistemology and Indian spirituality. This is a first step out of the impasse of the struggle of -isms and post-isms” —Boike Rehbein, Professor of Asian and African Societies, Humboldt University, Berlin

“Going beyond the conventional functions of description, explanation and prediction of the knowledge enterprise, which is currently a tool of commercialization and political domination, Dr. Ananta Kumar Giri attempts to provide a framework for creating compassionate and transformative knowledge in which, the self, the other and the world (encapsulating both humanity and nature) are partners in producing knowledge so that knowledge becomes liberative. Admittedly, this book deserves to be widely read, discussed and commented.” —T. K. Oommen, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

“One of the conditions under which knowledge can be a force for liberation from narrow concerns and false dichotomies has to be knowledge’s own liberation. The issue then becomes how we can know what liberation might be. If anyone can at once pose and answer this question, it is Ananta Kumar Giri.” —Dame Marilyn Strathern, William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology (Emeritus), University of Cambridge

Meet the Author

Ananta Kumar Giri is an associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai, India.


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