Continuing to honour my parents, I would like to turn this week to my father, Jayant Lele, who has been central to my intellectual development throughout my lifetime. No doubt he has influencrd me in many ways I’m not even aware of; here I will discuss what I do know about.
My father bequeathed to me two intellectual drives: to understand wider context, and to stand outside consensus as an intellectual outsider. Jayant was never comfortable thinking as everyone else thought. He grew up the youngest of six in a family of brahmin Hindu nationalists – but hung out as a child with Muslim friends. As an adult, he has held steadfast to the thought of Karl Marx throughout decades that thought they had moved long past it. It’s perhaps particularly telling that, despite India having one of the richest and longest-lasting living Marxist traditions in the world today, he did not become a Marxist until he came to Canada.
Like so many other academic Marxists, Jayant adopted Marx’s ideas because they allowed him to make sense of the big picture – to go beyond individual places and policies and understand how politics, society and economy connected as a global whole. When he began studying sociology, individuals’ actions did not make sense to him without an understanding of the unchosen contexts and circumstances that constrained them. To find that whole he first turned to the sociological functionalism of Talcott Parsons, who was once sociology’s reigning theorist but whose ideas now languish almost entirely unread; introductory sociological theory classes usually teach his contribution to sociology with a certain embarrassment, as anthropology classes do about their colonial forebears. But what Parsons offered at the time was that sense of the whole: contra Margaret Thatcher, there is indeed such a thing as society, which takes on a life distinguishable from the individuals who make it up. Parsons understood, in short, that “men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing” – a thought articulated by the man my father would eventually find much better at explaining the world.
My own thoughts are similarly animated by this quest for the big picture. It’s why I have never been satisfied with analytic philosophy, which tries to solve philosophical problems by chopping them up into smaller and smaller pieces. I do think that method can make for a useful heuristic when one has been banging one’s head against a particular problem for a long time and needs to clarify what is going on. But when practised exclusively, it leads to a parochialism of the sort associated with medieval scholasticism, where one thinks only within the limits of the “intuitions” of one’s own place and time. That is why I have declared this blog to be the love of all wisdom; there is a larger philosophical space out there, both in terms of what has been said and what is actually true. It’s a monumental task to try to find that larger truth and I’m not sure whether I will succeed. But it is my father’s spirit that animates the quest.
So too, as my father’s son I learned to stand outside of the intellectual currents prevailing around me. I studied the social sciences in my first two degrees at McGill and Cornell, and throughout that time I grappled with Marxist ideas. (And before, for that matter: I had even written a paper on Marxist economics for an economics class in high school.) I don’t think there was ever a time where I embraced Marxism fully, but during this time I never rejected it either. Much of my intellectual time at McGill was spent thinking through the Marxism I inherited from my father in relation to the non-Marxist or even anti-Marxist ideas I learned in class. None of my professors at McGill were particularly sympathetic to Marxism; one of them, Axel van den Berg, had devoted much of his intellectual career to criticizing it. But I enjoyed his classes immensely because so much of them were spent in debate and argument; my defending Marxist positions in those classes helped me understand both sides a lot better.
My favourite professor at McGill was a charismatic New Zealander named Warwick Armstrong, whose superb pedagogy I continue to admire. He conveyed his ideas so well that he won most of his students over to his worldview, Romantic mixed with a bit of jargon-free postmodernism. It made more of an impact on me than most of my professors’ worldivews did, but by and large I remained a holdout, unconvinced by his distrust of “mega-theory” and modernity. In my study of the social sciences, Marx’s thought answered questions and made connections that Warwick’s views did not.
I don’t think it was the Marxism itself that left the biggest impact on me in this process, for I don’t consider myself a Marxist now. I do think that Marx’s thought retains a great deal of power for analyzing contemporary capitalist society, more than most people think it does. But there is far more to life than just contemporary capitalist society. The basic maladies that brought the Buddha out of his palace – illness, disease and death – will always be with us no matter how just our political economy is. So too, whatever society we are in, there will always be craving and the suffering it brings. We need a view that allows us to understand these deeper ills of the human condition.
But what my study of Marxism did leave me with was an enduring skepticism, a readiness to question whatever ideas were passed on to me. I think it is because of my father’s influence that I cannot consider myself anyone’s disciple, not even my father himself. If I had to name one figure whose methodology I share the most, I might – very hesitantly – name James Doull and through him Hegel. But as far as I can tell, Doull’s thought, like Hegel’s, does not do justice to the philosophies of Asia, and does not incorporate them into his mature synthesis, and for that reason I do keep my distance from him. Alternately, I do share what I take to be Ken Wilber’s overarching project of a global synthesis that does incorporate Asian traditions as well as science and feminism – but I do not think Wilber has succeeded at that project. It would be hard to call myself Doullian and I could not call myself Wilberian – let alone Buddhist or Marxist!
Being an intellectual outsider can be lonely at times. One doesn’t get a community of like-minded fellows with whom one sympathizes, whom one can turn to for mutual affirmation. It makes, I suspect, for a less happy intellectual life. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. People rooted deeply in a single local tradition that fills their needs, like Ruthie Leming or typical Stonehill students, probably are happier than I am. But I can’t imagine living their lives any more than I can imagine living the life of an elephant. In my intellectual life if nowhere else, I would stand with Penelope Trunk in preferring the interesting life to the happy one.
Beyond that, my father is a model for how even someone who disagrees radically with his fellows can nevertheless earn their respect and love. One didn’t have to be a Marxist to acknowledge his diligence and understanding as a colleague or a supervisor. At his retirement party, a vast number of his colleagues spoke up to praise the support and warmth he had offered them over the years. I have never seen such an outpouring in any similar situation.
A Harvard PhD colleague – not the kind of person one expects to be at a loss for words – recently noted he was impressed that I’d kept up this blog up with regular content for three years. “I just don’t have that much to say,” he told me. But that has never been an issue for me. There have certainly been times when it was difficult coming up with a week’s output, but most of the time I have had ideas with little difficulty. My father always taught me to have something to say.
The ideas I express here, I owe to Jayant Lele. That holds true even for the many ideas that he would strongly disagree with, for that very contrarian disagreement is central to what he taught me.