Gandhi as a Philosopher

Sunday, September 26, 2010
First Aired: 
Sunday, November 16, 2008

What Is It

Gandhi is famous as the leader of the movement for Indian independence, which he based on his philosophy of non-violence, an important influence on Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi's ideas and the effects of his leadership continue to influence the world and its leaders.  What was the philosophical basis of these ideas?  Is non-violence a strategy for a certain purpose, or the basis for a way of life?  Ken and John welcome Akeel Bilgrami, Director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University and author of "Gandhi, the Philosopher."

Listening Notes

Though Gandhi was not a traditional philosopher, this may speak better of him than of traditional philosophers. Gandhi’s philosophy changed history in dramatic ways, though more by inspiring action than intellectual investigation, and despite his resistance to claiming a monopoly on truth.

After a brief pause for roving philosophical reporting, Ken and John ask their guest, Akeel Bilgrami, about how he became interested in Gandhi. Bilgrami tells Ken and John about his background, and then they launch into a discussion about how Gandhi’s actions related to his words: which drove which? What drove him to derive political strategy from first philosophical principles? They make some initial inroads into Gandhi’s philosophy and his critique of the enlightenment.

In the next section, Ken, John, and Akeel delve into Gandhi’s understanding of truth as a moral, rather than cognitive ideal, and of the well lived life as one of practical engagement, rather than one of intellectualized study. They relate these ideas to Gandhi’s critique of the Enlightenment, and in particular to Gandhi’s critique of the kind of modern politics that is rooted in Enlightenment political philosophy. Callers help Ken and John apply Gandhi’s thoughts to real world examples in  modern politics, in the US and abroad. Akeel reminds them that Gandhi thought that rational argument wasn’t the only or best way to engage in politics: the most obvious alternative, violence, is clearly not the way to go, but Gandhi suggested another mode of engagement: modeling positive examples and touching people’s conscience.

In the last section, Ken and John ask Akeel what made Gandhi’s strategy successful, and what we can learn from Gandhi’s philosophy. Akeel discusses the necessity of not showing contempt for ‘ordinary’ people in a mass democracy. According to Gandhi, democratic masses can be corrupted by the ‘education’ of the media and manipulative institutions, but can learn to be real full and helpful citizens in popular movements that take place within democratic structures. Akeel touches on the fact that non-violence isn’t always practical – during World War II, for instance, Hitler’s actions needed violent reactions –  but that non-violence has more going for it than what it often gets credit for.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 6:10): Polly Stryker interviews Gandhi’s grandson, a leader of the ‘non-violent communication’ movement. He talks about the importance of seeing through criticism to understand criticizer’s needs, and of the effectiveness of his approach in dealing with real life problems in Pakistan.
  • Philosophy Talk Goes to the Movies (seek to 45:45). Ken and John review ‘Gandhi’, an award winning three hour movie about Gandhi’s inspiring life. They  note its noteworthiness for not being a sophomoric tale of male humor and violence, and for its importance in informing us of the background politics between India and Pakistan’s relationship today.