By Vangeesa Sumanasekara
The name Nalin de Silva helps us to determine a certain ambiguity in – what remains of – the Sri Lankan academic discourse. On the one hand, he is often identified as a figure of undisputed significance in the rise of contemporary Sinahala nationalism, and, in this regard, he is considered as an important point of reference in any attempt to understand the developments of Southern nationalist discourse and its impact on the political fate of our collective life. On the other hand, there is very little direct acknowledgement of the necessity of confronting his works in order to identify the problems and limits of the Idea of the Nation propagated by contemporary Sinhala Nationalism. It is as if there is a silent agreement that criticizing the works of Nalin de Silva is not worth the effort of a serious academic labour – it is always pushed aside as the duty of the Other. In this respect, it can be taken as an exemplary form of what Robert Pfaller calls interpassivity, as a dominant mode of the way desire functions in contemporary societies[i]: duty of carrying the difficult engagement with a somewhat embarrassing issue is always transferred to the Other so that one can continue to go on living in his/her comfort zones believing that the Other would somehow do the necessary dirty work. Let me be that Other.
The basic strategy of my investigation is the following. Instead of focusing on the particular arguments raised by Nalin de Silva, apropos a wide array of issues, ranging from the Tamil nationalism to modern science, I will take out what I consider to be the core insight of de Silva’s thinking which is fully elaborated in his influential 1985 work “මගේ ලෝකය” (“My World”). It is this crucial argument, I contest, that lies as the ultimate backdrop of de Silva’s thinking with regard to all the other issues from politics to philosophy of science. I will first place this argument in a broader historical context and briefly analyze the consequences of this historicity. Then I will expose a blind-spot in de Silva’s reasoning that had gone unnoticed heretofore by the author as well as his critics, but something that matches perfectly with the historical consequences of his approach that I have discussed in the preceding section. In the process, I shall attempt to present a persuasive case for the need to renew and reconsider the terms of our critical thinking as well as the conceptual apparatuses of our political analyses.
Let us begin by focusing on a passage by de Silva where one can clearly discern the underlying logic of his thinking and also see why it can be considered as the worst kind of fundamentalist backlash not worthy of critical responses:
“Every set of ideas [මතවාදයක්] is political in the last instance. Buddhism does not fall into that category because it is not a set of ideas. Sinhala Buddhism, however, became a set of ideas from the time of King Dewanampiya Tissa. If not for this transformation, Buddhism, just as it did in India, may have disappeared from this country and thereby would have disappeared from the world. It is an active force in politics of this country today. Every religion is political by virtue of that fact that it is a set of ideas. Catholic and Christian churches as well as Islamic mosques, thereby, become political institutions.”[ii]
At a first glance, it is not difficult to recognize the problem with this proposition. It seems that de Silva has elevated Buddhism, and Buddhism alone, to that of an Absolute truth and thereby relegated every other system of beliefs to mere sets of ideas that are no more than competing political opinions to gain supremacy over each other. This Absolute, presumably because of its Absolute validity, cannot engage in a worldly political battle with other systems of beliefs and therefore is in need of an equivalent form that can compete with these other active political forces in order to safeguard the spirit of this Absolute: this is the historical responsibility of Sinhala Buddhism. In this sense, according to de Silva, nothing less than the burden of Absolute Truth lies in the hands of Sinhala Buddhism, for if not for this latter form, this Absolute Truth would disappear from Sri Lanka and thereby the world will no longer be able to attain the Truth about human existence. It would not be a surprise if one identifies here the same argument through which an Islamist or a Christian fundamentalist commits the worst atrocities of massacre and destruction – here, we have the Buddhist variation.
What complicates this simple picture, however, is the path that ultimately led de Silva to this position and the philosophical themes underpinning this path. For, by reducing Nalin de Silva’s ideas to a yet another expression of ethno-religious fundamentalism, one misses what is, to my mind, the unique aspect of de Silva’s thinking. This is not to say that his is not a fundamentalist discourse, for it indisputably is – as is evident from the above quote. In this regard, his is a world view that contains all the key ingredients of Zizek’s amusingly succinct definition of nations: “a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past, a hatred of their present neighbors, and dangerous illusions about their future”[iii]. But what makes it a unique case is the fact that this fundamentalism ultimately stems from moderately sophisticated epistemological concerns which would not only appear to be entirely acceptable to many modern readers but also be considered, by many, as the very norms of philosophical modernity. Thus, the problem that we must address is how did these central epistemological themes in modern philosophy become entangled and mixed together with ethno-religious fundamentalism.
I will be aided in this task by the vigorous work of the young French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux and his influential critique of correlationism[iv]. Meillassoux may appear, for a reader well-schooled in late twentieth century thought – popularly known as Theory – as a bizarrely outdated philosopher reminiscent of a past that we have decisively surpassed. For he proposes to successfully demonstrate theses which are commonly held to belong to an obsolete mode of thinking not only since French poststructuralism but at least since Immanuel Kant – i.e. the very beginning of the philosophical modernity. His central interest is to rediscover a philosophy capable of attaining absolute truths that cannot be relativized to a subjective, historical, cultural or sexual standpoint. He claims the thought’s capacity to access eternal and absolute truths and goes onto draw precise logical consequences in their relation to sciences, arts and human existence. What is of interest, as far as our current enquiry is concerned, is not how Meillassoux goes on to prove these seemingly outdated – some may say, even politically perilous – theses. Instead, I will use this space to provide an argument that would demonstrate the necessity of his project, by way of a critique of “මගේ ලෝකය” and how it can be understood as a textbook example of one of Meillassoux’s central polemics against the predominant form of modern philosophy[v].
Before proceeding to that, however, it is necessary to very briefly state the strange fate of anyone who attempts to introduce contemporary critical debates to the Sri Lankan context. For he or she will not only be forced to tackle theoretical prejudices of the age, but also will have the difficult task of updating a local theoretical debate that has not evolved after its encounters with the French thought of 1960s and 1970s. When reading Sri Lankan writings, one often gets the impression that after Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault, the world of philosophy and critical thinking has simply stopped. In this context, it is imperative to state that between the generation of Derrida or Foucault and the generation of Meillassoux, there lays a very tangible shift in thought that sets the stage for this younger generation of thinkers[vi].
Let us get back to our investigation. Perhaps the most influential element of Meillassoux’s philosophy, to date, has been the critical term he introduced in order to single out the common feature that remains central to otherwise diverse, and often mutually exclusive, philosophies during the last three centuries: correlationism[vii]. In its most simple form ‘correlationism’ stands for the unsurpassable interconnectedness of thinking and being – we are always-already limited by a world that is simply a correlate of my mind and a mind which is not thinkable outside its relation to the world. The fundamental argument of this ‘era of Correlation’[viii] was developed by an eighteenth century philosopher whose significance is often dismissed even though his basic insight survived as the ultimate horizon of human thought throughout Western – and as we shall see, anti-Western – philosophy, ever since. This thinker, of course, is George Berkeley. It was Berkeley who first formulated the seemingly impeccable argument that definitively puts an end to every form of realism in thought[ix]. Any attempt to think of an external reality independent from the mind, Berkeley claimed, involves a “manifest contradiction”[x] since by virtue of the very fact that we are thinking, we remain confined to the realm of the mind. We cannot think about the outside of thought without thereby internalizing that outside, converting it back into a part of our mental world. Consequently, the idea of the external world, because it is an idea, depends on our perceptions, attitudes and desires, outside of which, it has no possible meaning. For what else do we know about the outside world other than the ideas we have about it? This means, that the world is entirely relative to our perceptions and any change of the latter will decisively affect the entirety of the former.
The obvious result of this argument is that the idea of absolute reality becomes an untenable position in modern philosophy – no one could step outside from his/her own minds to the ‘world of things’ and see if our conceptions correspond accurately to that world. What matters, in other words, is no longer the correspondence between the concept and the object, existing independently of each other, but rather their originary correlation. Meillassoux’s incisive point – and in this, at least, his argument is indisputable – is that the entirety of modern philosophy, from Kantian Transcendentalism, German Idealism, and Phenomenology to post-Wittgensteinian Analytic philosophy and French Postmodernism/Poststructuralism, can all be identified as different variations of this central motif: “to be is to be a correlate”[xi].
How is this relevant to our discussion concerning Nalin de Silva? The answer to this question lies in the surprising connection Meillassoux identifies between modern philosophy – or the ‘era of Correlation’ – and the rise of religious fundamentalism[xii]. Committing the inevitable violence inherent to every reduction of a philosophical argument to a single line, I would say that this concerns the precise status of the idea of absolute. For what is certain is that the philosophical renunciation of the idea of the absolute does not necessarily entail the end of the idea itself. A cursory glance on contemporary societies will suffice to show that this idea of a radical alterity – for this is what the absolute amounts to – has not only remained entirely preserved but has grown stronger in many ways. I am, of course, referring to religion and mysticism. As we know, one of the simplest definitions of religious discourse is that it is a discourse on absolute truth – a truth that is radically separated from the worldly existence, but which somehow contains the true meaning of that existence. Moreover, insofar as the overwhelming majority of the people are concerned, it was never really philosophy which held the authority of determining the meaning of the absolute; it was religion which always had the upper hand. In this context, abandoning the sole rights of interpreting the meanings of the absolute to its religious partisans amounts to nothing less than a reinforcement of religiousity.
Another way to understand Meillassoux’s point is to think about the following strange feature of the times we live. Several decades ago, it was not uncommon to find individuals who were questioning religious faith – youth involved in Leftist political groups, radical artists as well as practitioners of sciences. What is the situation today? Has it not become something entirely unimaginable for us to ask questions pertaining to the truth-content of religious beliefs? Why, exactly? The answer is quite simple: with the ever growing expansion of modern critical thinking, we are no longer in a position to challenge the possibility of the religious truth. Every consistent modern thinker will not only have to accept that religious beliefs are entirely plausible but they may also provide us with the only key to understand the realm beyond the reach of rational knowledge. Rounding up his argument, Meillassoux shows how this is equally applicable to the two central figures of the twentieth century philosophy, Heidegger and Wittgenstein and the way they move seamlessly from critical reason to religious mysticism[xiii]. For our part, let us focus on Nalin de Silva.
It is in his 1985 work “මගේ ලෝකය” that one can find the most detailed critique of the idea of reality. It must be said, straight away, that I take my critical distance from this work only with cautious admiration. For it is this much neglected work – both by the Academia as well as the Left – which first introduced in Sinhala the quintessential task of the critique of metaphysics, i.e. challenging the notion of reality, governed by a set of transcendent and necessary laws that can be grasped through the use of reason. At least this aspect of his work, in my opinion, must be preserved, for we cannot go back to a naïve idea of reality depending on our limited perceptions. It is this work that first established, in modern Sinhala, the important fact that there is an irreducible gap between appearance and reality. In this regard, one would not be completely mistaken to identify this work, especially considering its indisputable influence, as the poor – Sinahala – man’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. Paraphrasing Meillassoux, we can even say that on this point we cannot but be heirs of Nalin de Silva. It is inconsequential that de Silva does not frame his problematic in the critical context of Empiricism and Kant’s famous response to it. What is clear is that his immediate influences – important analytic philosophers of science such as Kuhn and, most significantly, Feyerabend – were all critical successors of Karl Popper who develops his celebrated theory of science based on the ‘problem of causality’ – the problem of the necessity of the laws of nature – first formulated by David Hume[xiv]. Since it is precisely this problem and Kant’s proposed resolution thereof – his Critique – that gave birth to modern philosophy, it is easily demonstrable that the general horizon of “මගේ ලෝකය” is nothing but the ‘era of Correlation’.[xv]
A quick reading of the text is enough to confirm this simple fact, where one can easily find the Berkeleyan formula casting its heavy shadow over the text. It begins with the demarcation of the limits of human knowledge – how our knowledge is necessarily formed by our sensory perceptions as well as our cultural heritage – and moves on to a problematization of the notion of reality, by way of a reading of the famous Bell’s inequality experiments conducted by Alain Aspect[xvi]. The problem with this exposition, however, is that it does not so much prove the inexistence of reality as much as the inability of human knowledge to access the mind-independent reality. At best, we can say, the reality will necessarily change the moment we intervene as observers and outside of that intervention, we have a radical ignorance. In the first edition of “මගේ ලෝකය”, in 1985, this can be seen as the principle conclusion of the book where reality is identified as a ‘process’, radically separated from us and of which we have no way of gaining any knowledge[xvii].
On the other hand, one can also see that this is not the entire story. At very early on in the text, before he gives his crucial arguments against the idea of a mind-independent reality, we are told that “every word, other than the word nirvana, is a concept”[xviii]. Three chapters later, this is repeated, but this time more emphatically: “every kind of knowledge [including scientific knowledge] is a conventional truth (සම්මුති සත්ය). Only nirvana is an absolute truth”[xix]. This latent tendency, which in fact runs counter to his manifest critique of reality, reaches its apex in the Introduction he wrote to the third edition of the book, in 1999. In a self-critical turn he distances himself from his earlier idea of a ‘process’ independent from our minds and claims that there is no-thing outside our minds and that this can only be seen once we attain nirvana[xx].
What is of special interests to us is that at no point the author feels that he needs to justify these claims, especially given the fact that his primary concern is to establish that the idea of a mind-independent reality, graspable by human knowledge, is a flawed one. For if we cannot get out of ourselves in order to ‘see’ the reality the way it really is, then, what guarantee we have that nirvana is an absolute truth? For instance, he categorically claims that God is a man-made concept – or a normative truth[xxi] but fails to see that by his own argument, he simply has no way of proving the invalidity of God or the validity of nirvana – at best, one can be a radical agnostic on the validity or the invalidity of both these accounts, along with myriad other possibilities. What if – to take Descartes’s famed extreme argument – there is a powerful but malicious demon who devised this reality in order to deceive us in our judgments[xxii]? What if – why not – we are inside The Matrix?
Two interconnected points must be emphasized. On the one hand, the author fails to see the simple fact that our inability to access the reality the way it really is, does not amounts to saying that there is no external reality. On the contrary, by virtue of the fact that we have no access to reality, we should refrain from making any judgments on it – for, stating that there is no external reality is a judgment on the mind-independent reality. On the other hand, and in a related manner, the author fails to notice that he is merely positing that Buddhist doctrine of nirvana is an absolute truth, without providing any reason to admit that. If we cannot know anything about reality, why do we believe only Buddhism as the absolute truth?
For many years, those who attempted to respond to “මගේ ලෝකය” have always attempted to breach its argument by hanging onto a naïve notion of reality, posited as really existing independent from the mind[xxiii]. Naturally, all these attempts have failed to break the intrinsic strength of this quintessentially modern argument and, consequently the book has only grown in its influence in spite of the little attention it gets from the Sri Lankan intelligentsia. In this preliminary sketch, I have attempted the alternative path of taking Nalin de Silva’s own argument to its logical conclusion. This way we were able to identify a blind-spot in his thinking that has gone unnoticed, not only by the author himself but also by the wide array of the critics of this influential text: de Silva’s critique of realism culminates in an entirely ungrounded notion of a religious absolute and that these two aspects of the work seem to move seamlessly from one to the other. With the aid of the work of Quentin Meillassoux, I have argued that this should be seen, far from being a simple mistake of the author, as a necessary consequence of this approach to the question of reality. Every philosophy of radical finitude, argues Meillassoux, has religiousity as its shadowy double. Surely, de Silva’s work is a very crude form of this modern critical reason, catered entirely to a predominantly Buddhist community of readers. Neither Heidegger nor Wittgenstein, commit themselves to a particular religious absolute – what they do propose, instead, is the general superiority of faith over reason, or, more simply, the sole authority of religious discourse to ponder on the ‘big questions’ of life[xxiv]. It is this proximal relation between modern critical thought and the religious absolute that runs through the thinking of de Silva – when reason finds itself at a radical impasse only the passion of the believer could redeem it.
This is also why when confronted with this passion, all political responses bereft of the weighty force of the absolute become impotent – reduced to a legalist discourse of Rights and a moralism of Good Citizenry. Is it possible to rediscover a path that leads us out of the prison house of social conventions? This is the question we must seriously ask ourselves, after the end of the communist politics, and when we are confronted with a time where, as that other mystical poet, William Butler Yeats, famously put it:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
[i] See Slavoj Zizek (2008) The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso), pp 144-147
[ii] See, http://www1.kalaya.org/2015/06/blog-post_20.html#more (my translation)
[iii] Slavoj Zizek (2012) Less Than Nothing – Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London: Verso), p. 914
[iv] See Quentin Meillassoux (2008) After Finitude – An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, tr. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum), especially see Chapter 2.
[v] See Nalin de Silva (2011), මගේ ලෝකය, (බොරලැස්ගමුව: විසිදුනු ප්රකාශකයෝ).
[vi] For a brief and anecdotal account of this change in philosophy that occurred towards the end of the twentieth century, see, for instance, Simon Critchley’s recollection of the 1990s at https://frieze.com/article/theoretically-speaking
[vii] Meillassoux (2008) pp 5-7
[viii] Meillassoux introduces the term ‘era of Correlation’ in a later essay where he upgrades some of the terminology used in his first book. See Quentin Meillassoux (2012) Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition, tr. Robin Mackay, p. 4, available online at https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0069/6232/files/Meillassoux_Workshop_Berlin.pdf
[ix] See George Berkeley (1982), A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Understanding, edit. Kenneth Winkler (Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company). Especially, see pp. 23-25
[x] Ibid, p. 25
[xi] Meillassoux (2008) p. 28 (Italics in the original has been removed).
[xii] For Meillassoux’s detailed exposition of this link, see, ibid, pp. 43-49
[xiii] Ibid, pp. 41-42 and p. 48
[xiv] For Hume’s formulation of the problem, see David Hume (2007) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Other Writings, ed. Stephen Buckle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) pp. 29-72. It must be said that Meillassoux rejects Popper’s interpretation of Hume’s problem as a conflation between the epistemological and ontological levels. See Quentin Meillassoux (2015) Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction, tr. Alyosha Edlebi (Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing) pp. 11-17
[xv] It is worth noting that, according to Meillassoux, even though Berkeley first formulated the ultimate form the correlationist argument, it was Hume, for reasons we cannot discuss here, who can be regarded as the first correlationist proper. See, Meillassoux (2012), p. 6
[xvi] See Nalin de Silva (2011) pp. 38-52
[xvii] Ibid, p. 32
[xviii] Ibid, p.31
[xix] Ibid, p. 70 (my translation)
[xx] Ibid, pp. V-VI
[xxi] Ibid, p. 102
[xxii] See Rene Descartes (1996) Meditations on First Philosophy – With Selections from the Objections and Replies, tr. & ed. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 15
[xxiii] For a wonderful example of these failed attempts, one can listen to the debate between Nalin de Silva and Vikramabahu Karunaratne on the question of materialism, available online at http://www.kalaya.org/audio3.html
[xxiv] For a very illuminating essay by Wittgenstein on this topic, see Ludwig Wittgenstein, “A Lecture on Ethics”, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 74, No. 1. (Jan., 1965), pp. 3-12