About the Author
Carey A. Watt holds a PhD in South Asian history from the University of Cambridge, and is currently Associate Professor of History (South Asia/World) at St. Thomas University in Canada.
Michael Mann holds a PhD from the University of Heidelberg and is currently Professor of South Asian History and Culture at Humboldt University, Berlin.
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Civilizing Missions in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia
From Improvement to Development
By Carey A. Watt, Michael Mann
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2011 Carey A. Watt and Michael Mann
All rights reserved.
CONJECTURING RUDENESS: JAMES MILL'S UTILITARIAN PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY AND THE BRITISH CIVILIZING MISSION
Introduction: The History of British India as an Exercise in Futility
A deep ambivalence characterizes James Mill's The History of British India. Mill, the historian of India who never went to India, wrote ostensibly in the style of Scottish conjectural history, grafting this short-lived mode of historiography and onto a particularly rigid strand of utilitarian thinking. The result of this philosophical amalgam was a ponderous narrative now infamous for its disparaging comments about the 'rude nations' of the world, and a work of purportedly 'standard', 'canonical' or 'hegemonic' status, often being assigned the position as the single most important work in the historiography of South Asia. The ambivalence running through the History is a result of its 'rude' subject matter combined with the difficulty of aligning this rudeness with Mill's aim of providing the world with utilitarian knowledge, for it seems that Mill himself considered the work, along with its subject matter, regrettably inutile. The History was a book that need not have been written and a work of limited utility, for it could, in the eyes of its own author, only teach about the rude people of India. Mill offered the History as a 'service' to spare the utility of future generations, encompassing everything one could need to know about India 'once and for all'. In carrying out this service, Mill established many of the ideological and textual underpinnings for the British civilizing mission, which was still inchoate when the History was first published in 1817. Mill's work became a cornerstone for establishing discourses of colonial difference that supported the colonial civilizing mission.
Despite his seeming concern for reforming India, Mill perceived colonialism as an endeavour counter to utilitarian ends. 'The love of domination', Mill reminded the reader, 'has always the greatest sway in the most ignorant state of the human mind'. The irony was intentional and was rooted in the allegorical nature of the History, through which Mill intended to awaken British readers into recognizing their own rudeness. The History was supposed to serve as a mirror which British readers held up to themselves to feel embarrassed about their own rudeness and love of domination. The ambivalence of Mill's work was thus twofold: the History only retained its utility as a justification for colonial rule, yet colonial rule as a whole is anti-utilitarian. As a result, the book was intended to lay the groundwork for its own elimination. Nonetheless, despite Mill's qualms with colonialism, he could still enjoy a profitable job at the East India House and actively participate in strengthening Britain's hold on India. As long as the colony existed, it should at least be governed as well as possible.
With the peculiar confluence of philosophical strands woven into the History, Mill worked within an idiosyncratic strain of thinking seemingly running counter to many of the basic notions of the European Enlightenment. The History conforms neither to Mary Poovey's characterization of the Enlightenment as relying on 'neutral' facts gathered through calculation, nor to what Martin Jay has characterized as the 'ocularcentrism' of the Enlightenment, since Mill trusted his principles over his eyes. This mistrust of needing to see his subject in order to form an impression of it was deepened by Mill's tacit assumption that a carnivalesque atmosphere of chaos was rampant in India, a veritable miasma of impressions which would permanently taint the eyes, and thereby the reason of anyone who experienced it, including those who lived within the carnival. Whereas the festival or carnival formed the ideal of transparency for Rousseau, it was the bearer of a contagious opacity for Mill, thus exemplifying Stephen Greenblatt's claim regarding colonial knowledge production that 'the explanatory power of writing repeatedly tames the opacity of the eye's objects by rendering them transparent signs'. In the face of this dense opacity, Mill's rationality revealed itself to be fragile and constantly susceptible to jagged partial impressions. This rationality was at once the robust infallible reason of the Enlightenment, but it was also violable, open to incursions and pollution wherever inutility reared its ugly head, including in the mother country. For its part, Mill's India was woefully wrapped up within partial impressions of itself, unable even to grasp itself, unable to know what it was without being gathered together in the fold of a Western rationality that risked polluting itself by gathering together such a raw mass of rude material into a cohesive whole. Working under the sign of what Edward Said referred to as 'radical realism', the assertive and creative power of the copula in Orientalist texts, Mill first had to think what India was, write it, then allow others to see it through the gaze of the reformer. In this manner, Mill served as the tabulator of a grid of faults and sketched a topography of rudeness, establishing a blueprint for those preparing the 'sweeping away' that would allow a civilizing mission to supplant what came before it.
Under Mill's peculiar concept of utilitarianism, the History rendered itself superfluous, but only on the condition that it first state its own superfluity in a scope of words coextensive with itself. Mill thus wrote in the mode of an apology - a curious tone for a work stretching to over two thousand pages. The scope of the task Mill set for himself was recognizably ambitious: to develop a final philosophy of man, to write a final work on the history of India, to finally rank all the civilizations of the world, to lay out precise and final plans for governing these civilizations, all while laying the groundwork for civilizing them through proper governance. Despite this ambitious scope, Mill was convinced of his ability to provide a work of such finality since he considered himself to be in possession of the philosophical principles of an absolute science of human nature. This science, in the words of Elie Halévy's classic text on the philosophical milieu in which Mill wrote, 'allows human nature to be overcome in the interest of mankind'. Overcoming human nature was achieved through a process of understanding that very nature completely and the 'general laws of human nature' by which it is governed. Through a familiarity with these universal laws, the axiomatic framework underpinning the certainty of Mill's conjectural history, one could conjecture on a subject for which evidence is missing (or, in Mill's case, has been ignored) and even supplant empirical evidence with this superior Western reasoning derived from a knowledge of universal laws. Similarly, the British civilizing mission carried out in the name of the universal laws would also overcome human nature 'in the interest of mankind'. Rudeness in Mill's thinking was thus doubly conjectured: firstly by Mill's refusal to visit India and, secondly, in his writing India's history through great conjectural leaps. As will be shown, this form of conjecture occupies a unique position in the development of the Western rationality in whose name European colonial civilizing missions were carried out.
In her striking intellectual history of this rationality, Mary Poovey has described this form of conjecture as constituting a 'dissenting opinion' against the epistemology of what she calls the 'modern fact', an epistemology that was developing into its mature form by the middle of the 19 century. In Poovey's depiction, the modern fact is characteristically positivistic, empirically verifiable, often numerical, and was constructed as a 'neutral' unit of knowledge. Mill rejected this very type of fact and considered his failure visit India as an asset attesting to his authority as a historian of India, for seeing India would provide him with nothing more than 'partial impressions' which would conform to the expectations the observer already possessed. In a later essay expanding her research into 'the modern fact', Poovey comments directly on Mill's History, stating: 'According to this position, no eyewitness account, no matter how intimate the conditions under which it was produced, could overcome the inherent limitations of the human senses or the 'constitution of the human mind'. While Poovey deftly traces the background and pedigree of Mill's Scottish Enlightenment thinking and his deference to 'general principles', this paper intends to build on her account by taking the additional step of linking Mill's anti-empirical history of philosophy to his utilitarianism, and the place of his utilitarianism in the British colonial civilizing mission.
Mill's utilitarianism did not merely stand beside his conjectural philosophy of history, but was an integral component of it. A rude nation like India functioned according to rude principles, and its operation would be simple to understand according to these universal principles. Utilitarianism allowed Mill to streamline his conjecture, for a process that would produce only rude knowledge did not need to be carried out with much precision. Furthermore, once the rude nation had been assigned an inferior position in the scale of civilizations, knowledge collection could cease, for a rude civilization could offer nothing of worth to an advanced civilization. Indeed, it would even be a necessary consequence of this argument to say that what the 'rude' peoples themselves possessed or knew was not even tantamount to knowledge. As Mill gathered and assembled this knowledge, the History constantly worked to efface itself. Its main intention was merely to convince his readership that they, too, should feel no obligation to understand India, except to understand that it need not be understood.
Approaching The History of British India: Mill's Science of Human Nature
It is an irony of history that James Mill, the self-ordained prophet of philosophical progress, descended from Scotland, a place which David Hume referred to as 'the rudest, perhaps of all European nations'. After an ill-fated attempt to become a preacher, Mill moved to London, where he embarked upon a career as a freelance writer and began composing occasional pieces about India. In these early writings, Mill presented himself as a staunch opponent of colonialism and repeatedly called for the abolition of the East India Company. In the Edinburgh Review he wrote that 'the English public must be in a position to make decisions about this change based on reliable information'. In a later article, Mill dampened his demand for reform, stressing that regardless of what form of government the colony of India should have, it should be based on 'as accurate a knowledge as possible'. Composed over a twelve-year period and first published in 1817, Mill intended The History of British India to provide this knowledge. As Mill became increasingly enmeshed in India and his reputation as an 'expert' rose, he began to temper his criticism of the EIC, the most important employer in London for such experts. Mill's critical stance disappeared altogether when the EIC offered him a position as an Examiner. In 1812, Mill had written that the EIC's monopoly was a 'relict of a semi-barbarous' age. By 1832, he would be among an elite group of officials chosen to defend the monopoly before a Select Committee of Parliament after a long career at East India House in London.
From 1805 to 1817, the years during which Mill composed his History, the East India Company's position in India changed drastically as it began to solidify an ever-growing and valuable empire in India. With the definitive defeat of the Marathas in 1818, the Company's trade revenues soared to over £22 million as the colonial state grew in both size and importance. Seldom has a work appeared at such an opportune moment, for Britain was eager to coronate a 'standard' work in the growing field of knowledge about India when Mill appeared with his book in 1817, thus filling a lacuna in the literature of early nineteenth century Great Britain with a work that the author himself described as 'a motley kind of production'. This motley nature is at least partially attributable to Mill's idiosyncratic mix of conjectural history and utilitarianism, which is, in Jennifer Pitts' words, an 'ill-advised synthesis' of the two.
In Mill's brand of utilitarianism, the possibility of moral goodness and pleasure is based on one's external situation. Accordingly, the possibility of improving one's personal or moral well-being is contingent on reforming one's own society. Since this society consists of institutions and establishments, any personal improvement can only take place when these external institutions are governed by just laws which promote the pleasure of the greatest number. Mill intended his philosophy to be the exposition of these very laws, laws to be based on what Elie Halevy has called a 'calculus of morals'. Mill himself referred to his thinking as a 'science of human nature', a science aimed at determining universal laws for promoting this greatest good. This science, in turn, rested on the fundamental assumption that human nature was completely transparent and knowable through universally valid rational thought, and Mill claimed that given sufficient time he could 'make the human mind as plain as the road from Charing Cross to St. Paul's'. While perhaps Mill's least explicitly theoretical work, the History was in part conceived as a practical tabulation of calculations in support of Mill's science. Although much has been made of Mill's use of a purportedly Benthamite science in the History, Mill created a work which Bentham himself found 'melancholy' and 'disagreeable'.
In the History, Mill employed utilitarian philosophy in a twofold manner: as a guide for reform and as a benchmark for measuring rudeness. Eric Stokes, who showed Mill's unwavering dedication to utilitarian reform, masterfully documented Mill's use in the first sense. It remains nonetheless a neglected aspect of Mill's thought that he faltered in the second sense, applying utility only weakly as a measure of rudeness and its obverse — civilization. Mill did not structure his criticism of India around a consistently expressed philosophy of utilitarianism, and never attempted to precisely define utility. Donald Winch has claimed that Mill intended for utility to become 'a universal principle for judging all societies at all times'. Winch's assertion requires a certain amount of reading backwards based on a broader knowledge of Mill's writings, for the History itself provided only weak, platitudinous examples of the application of the utility principle. Within the History itself, Mill's strongest statement of utility as a standard for judging cultures is buried in an Appendix to Vol. II, a critique of 'Hindu' astronomy and algebra. Mill stated:
Exactly in proportion as Utility [Mill's italics] is the object of every pursuit, may we regard a nation as civilized. Exactly in proportion as its ingenuity is wasted on contemptible and mischievous objects, though it may be, in itself, an ingenuity of no ordinary kind, the nation may be safely denominated barbarous.
In this manner, Mill wielded a double-edged argumentative sword. On the one hand, he recognized that astronomy and algebra in India had reached levels which rivaled, if not bested, those in Europe. On the other hand, he rebuked India for using this great knowledge to futile ends, namely, superstitious astrology: 'the most irrational of all pursuits; one of those which most infallibly denote a nation barbarous'. Command of knowledge or advanced sciences as such was not sufficient to make a nation civilized, for knowledge itself was not an end, but a means. If any means, even a highly sophisticated one, was not properly employed towards a sound end, then a civilization would be all the more rude for possessing a sophisticated means and applying it towards a barbarous end. In such a case, when a potentially utilitarian means was employed for superstitious ends, then a nation's barbarity was reinforced. In other words, a nation would be considered more barbaric for having sophisticated means but not making use of it. Such a mode of argument is watertight, if one happens to reside in Mill's hermetic world of utility.
Excerpted from Civilizing Missions in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia by Carey A. Watt, Michael Mann. Copyright © 2011 Carey A. Watt and Michael Mann. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Relevance and Complexity of Civilizing Missions c. 1800-2010; Part One. The Raj’s Reforms and Improvements: Aspects of the British Civilizing Mission; 1. Conjecturing Rudeness: James Mill’s Utilitarian Philosophy of History and the British Civilizing Mission; 2. Art, Artefacts and Architecture: Lord Curzon, the Delhi Arts Exhibition of 1902-03 and the Improvement of India’s Aesthetics; Part Two. Colonialism, Indians and Nongovernmental Associations: The Ambiguity and Complexity of ‘Improvement’; 3. Incorporation and Differentiation: Popular Education and the Imperial Civilizing Mission in Early Nineteenth Century India; 4. Reclaiming Savages in ‘Darkest England’ and ‘Darkest India’: The Salvation Army as Transnational Agent of the Civilizing Mission; 5. Mediating Modernity: Colonial State, Indian Nationalism and the Renegotiation of the ‘Civilizing Mission’ in the Indian Child Marriage Debate of 1927-1932; Part Three. Indian ‘Self-Civilizing’ Efforts c. 1900-1930; 6. ‘Civilizing Sisters’: Writings on How to Save Women, Men, Society and the Nation in Late Colonial India; 7. From ‘Social Reform’ to ‘Social Service’: Indian Civic Activism and the Civilizing Mission in Colonial Bombay c. 1900-20; Part Four. Transcending 1947: Colonial and Postcolonial Continuities; 8. Female Infanticide and the Civilizing Mission in Postcolonial India: A Case Study from Tamil Nadu c. 1980-2006; 9. Philanthropy and Civilizing Missions in India c. 1820-1960: States, NGOs and Development; Afterword: Improvement, Progress and Development; List of Contributors; Index