A. Raghuramaraju: Context, Text, & Textbook

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Mr Raghuramaraju delivered a talk at the Manipal Center for Philosophy and Humanities on 18th October 2013, on the topic of ‘Context, Text, and Textbook.’ As part of the talk, he carefully unpacked, line by line, a few pages of Rousseau’s The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right to draw out how context and text functioned within the work. Starting from Rousseau’s work, Raghuramaraju looked at the ideas that had influenced Rousseau, and the traditions of thoughts that have germinated from it. He used Rousseau as a sounding board to navigate through ideas including justice, certainty, the master-slave relationship, capitalism, and the institution of the family. In other words, Raghuramaraju focused on Rousseau’s text to identify its implicit context (within the text), its explicit context, and the context it generated.

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Context, Text, & Textbook

Whenever we deal with a subject, there is a context, either explicit or implicit. For us, in academics, there is a text which anticipates a context and also creates a further context. But there is also the textbook. All the three have some significant differences, though they give us a deceptive feeling that they belong to the same species. They do similar functions, which is why they are perceived as the same. This has implications for the way we understand the subject.

In India, there are no authors – we have, instead, only writers. We don’t have texts and readers in India. We have writers and some body of printing; we have admirers and denouncers, but not critics. As V.S. Naipaul put it, “Hind Swaraj is a book owned by lakhs of people, but not read even by a handful. And if it is read, people do so either to agree or disagree with it, not to properly engage with it.”

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The book that I want to look at, today, is a text. There can be two kinds of context – an internal context that can be generated within the text, and also an external context. The text I am doing today is one in translation – The Social Contract by Rousseau. There are limitations to dealing with translations. Texts in translation humble us, and make us wary of our conclusions. Having said that, there is a translation that we are rooted to. The translation of this text is more pervasively used than the original. It is also a different kind of a text. The translation is bigger than the original, and a larger number of people have read the text in translation.

I believe that texts are like canned, frozen food. They are made to sleep. They are packed, and made to not spoil. The greatest ability of the text is to move outside its range. But only when it is packed correctly does the text have the ability to move. However, when we want to use the text, we need to rinse the text in water again. There is a need to bring life to it. The receiving, unpacking, and reusing – the way we do all that is important. Otherwise, it will only be a text that is seen, but not read.

Every text has a speed of its own. There are two important aspects associated with texts. First, once created, the text is imperishable. Second, all texts have a subtle speed to them. There is a need for the reader to get in tune with the text. Otherwise, we are treating it as static, dead material.

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Sometimes the text doesn’t reveal its meaning. The reader is deceived, thrown out, or engages with it. There is a need to look at the movement, recognize the speed of the text, and identify the right movement of reading, which means: I read, I reread, I reread again and again. Once you go back, you will discover new meanings.

Beginning with Social Contract
(We recommend you open your own copy
while reading this)

‘I mean to enquire’.  With that first sentence, Rousseau initiates a new methodology, which breaks and debunks from traditional philosophy à la Plato, Aristotle and Christian philosophy. No one before has used this word ‘enquire’ right in the beginning of a text. That is the key. It is an inquiry, not a final statement; it is not just to receive, but to participate actively. In the traditional system of philosophy, there is a truth and the agent discovers it. He discovers it passively. Now, Rousseau says, there is nothing called truth. Let us only inquire. As a reader of this book, as a part of modernity, as post-Barthes, our job increases. When we read a modern text, we are participants in it, not passive receivers of it. It is not something external, but a part of oneself.

‘I want to inquire If, in the civil order, they can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration …’

Rousseau uses the conditional, ‘if,’ to see if there is any ‘sure’ and legitimate rule of administration, both choices of words reflecting a challenge to Plato’s tyrannical statements and Decartes’ obsession with certainty. Can there be certainty about human existence? It is not possible to have exact certainty as you can have in the case of the natural sciences, when you are dealing with human affairs. This view would later be reinforced by Gramsci and Althusser.

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‘Justice and utility may in no case be divided’

Rousseau intertwines ‘justice’ and ‘utility’ and thus connects the ontological and the teleological, or consequential. Justice has always to be seen in relation to utility. Nothing should be in the realm of justice for its own sake. The addition of ‘utility’ also serves to secularise justice. Utility serves as a check to justice.

‘Since I am not a prince or a legislator, I will write.’

Rousseau is not privileging writing. He is privileging action. What Rousseau is saying is that ‘since I don’t have the privilege to act, I am resorting to this second order inquiry.

‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’

There is no continuity between what was and what is. The effect is more than or different from the cause. They are mutually exclusive.

‘One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.’

This statement is the foundation for Hegel. It unveils a new terrain in modernity. With this understanding, Rousseau challenges earlier theories which posited that the slave is eternally, completely, and necessarily dependent on the master. For the the first time, the master-slave relationship is see as one where there is interdependency, though in varying degrees. This is the seed of Hegel’s idea of master-slave dialectics.

‘How did this change come about? I don’t know.’

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This change – the movement from freedom to slavery – is not one of degree, but one from a mutually exclusive category to another. This is a political statement. Rousseau is not interested in history and anthropology. The question he wants to answer is not one of origins – he asks: what makes this transition legitimate?

‘The most ancient of all societies … convention’

One aspect of this passage attracted the attention of feminists – the absence of the mother. The woman, for Rousseau, was not an autonomous individual. Rousseau was a disguised patriarch.

What is the nature of the relationship between parents and children? Parents take care of children, children take care of parents – it is a circular system where debts are repaid. But Rousseau introduced another line of thought – the father is indebted to his father, the way his child is indebted to him.The child is not indebted to the father because the father is only clearing his debt to his own father. [Here, we would like to disagree with Raghurajramu’s reasoning. One of the writers at Barefootphilosophers believes that the idea Rousseau was trying to express was that the child owes obedience to the father only as long as the father owes care to the child. Once the child moves away from the care of the father, they are no longer under contract and the bond between them ceases to be natural.] Instead of a circular system, it is a linear one. It enables people to move away; the child moves away from the parent.

This statement can also be seen as reflecting the birth of capitalism. The linear system allows for the young and the old to separate, leading to higher productivity of the young. In capitalist societies, you have to take extra care of children because they are the reservoirs of the future. Old people, on the other hand, have no potential for production. The non-inheritance of knowledge is the price we pay for anonymity and independence.

‘The family then may be called … peoples under him.’

Rousseau does not reject family the way Plato did. For Plato, the family gives you a sense of private belonging; it takes you away from the state. Nor does Rousseau accept the family as natural in the way that Aristotle did. He does not, either, set it aside like Descartes. Rousseau does something radical to it, by using family as an instrument. He says that family is not a natural institution, but is instead based on conventions. It is only a contract. He reorganizes it in the form of a modern institution. There is no difference between modified family and the state because the family in the recast location is only a family in name, but not in substance.

‘The reasoning of Caligula agrees … dominion’

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Aristotle said he prefers inequality because it is natural. Rousseau agrees with Aristotle: inequality exists. But Aristotle mistook the effect for the cause. Aristotle saw inequality before him and assumed that it was the cause. In reality, it was the effect and not the cause.

Engels says something similar to this: nothing can be more certain than that every man born in slavery is born for slavery. People are not born into slavery, but made slaves by force.

We paused at that moment, and the audience was left to unravel the rest of the context of The Social Contract on their own. Perhaps one of the most charming elements of Raghuramaraju’s talk was the way he introduced the audience to a new kind of reading where every word and every phrase becomes cause to pause, wonder, and interpretation. However, one is left wondering about the role of the reader: is she constructing the context she sees within the text? The debate is common in literary criticism – where does one draw the line between the author’s (or in this case the text’s) intention, and the reader’s interpretation? And if each of us brings a unique reading to the text, would that mean that every text would have many contexts, implicit and explicit; that a reader would access the text from her own subjective standpoint? Perhaps one of the discomforts with Raghuramraju’s talk was that there was an essential contradiction between his standpoint and his methodology – though he spoke about how the reader should engage with a text actively, in his own unpacking of Rousseau, he spoke of the text as a gift-box which contains mysteries within it, independent of himself. Following Raghuramaraju’s own words, the reader should never forget that the text is part of oneself.

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